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The Debates Are Killing Edwards & Obama

By Steven Stark

Conventional wisdom says that, in the presidential-nomination process, debates help everyone but the front-runner in the polls, because they give the pack exposure and face time next to the leader. But so far in Campaign 2008, the opposite has been true. The constant debates are slowly destroying the candidacies of John Edwards and Barack Obama -- much to the delight of Hillary Clinton supporters.

Adam Nagourney of the New York Times remarked last weekend on how the Democrats recently had faced three debates in a single week. (And this coming week, they'll be at it again in Iowa.) That's a marked difference from the recent past.

What's driving the debate phenomenon is the press -- specifically cable television, which is happy to fill large news holes with pre-debate and post-debate analysis, not to mention the debates themselves. Without these "pseudo-events," the press would have to go out and do some reporting on the ground. Relentless debates make life a whole lot easier for pundits.

The problem, however, isn't limited to excessive rhetoric and the lazy reporting it encourages. The very fact that more debates are on the calendar will likely skew the results of the race. If there had been this kind of debate schedule in 1976 or 1972, Jimmy Carter and George McGovern -- two anti-establishment candidates who eschewed sound bites -- would never have won their party's nominations. (On second thought, perhaps that's the point.)

Obviously, debates benefit well-spoken, presentable candidates who can express themselves well in a minute or less -- one reason Mitt Romney and Hillary have done well so far. (Obama's tendency to generalize and philosophize is charming on the trail, not so much in a debate setting.)

Less obvious is the fact that exposure in these forums institutionalizes the leads of front-runners in the polls. That is one reason why, in this era of frequent primary debates, early front-runners tend to do better than they did from 1960 through 1988. The candidates in the back of the pack, of course, flock to the debates for the prime-time exposure and the chance to stand toe-to-toe against the leader. But that's not the kind of equal time these challengers need.

If, say, Edwards or Obama could debate Hillary one-on-one, things might be different. But when they share the stage with a full array of challengers, they fade into the woodwork -- at least as far as the press is concerned. Debates become a matter of the front-runner in the polls vs. the pack, which is the main reason the press inevitably crowns Hillary or Rudy Giuliani the winner of almost every encounter, even when their performances hardly warrant it.

Moreover, in a crowded field, if the challengers attempt to criticize the front-runner, they come off looking negative, and a third candidate benefits from the attack. The debates effectively insulate the front-runners from criticism, cementing their lead.

Worse, the dynamics of the 2007 Democratic debates are destroying the campaigns of the major challengers. Take Edwards. His calling card is that he's the candidate of real change, and he's backed that up by taking stands on issues such as NAFTA, which separate him from the mainstream.

But every time Edwards goes to his left, Dennis Kucinich -- who has no chance to be president and therefore can take any stand he pleases with impunity -- goes further left. This has the effect of making Edwards look like just another timid moderate, which is hardly what he is.

If anything, Obama fares worse in these debates. His advantage is that he's different and new, with all the excitement that comes with those attributes. But the more he appears on a stage with seven very conventional politicians, the more he appears as conventional as they are. In every debate, he loses a bit more charisma.

What's more, an odd dynamic has crept into the Democratic debates. The old hands of Washington -- Joe Biden and Chris Dodd -- have apparently taken offense at the temerity of Obama's assuming that he can be president without putting in as many years in Washington as they have. So, they've begun to ally themselves with familiar-face Hillary in the debates, as they did recently in an exchange over Obama's comments about whether he'd meet with rogue foreign leaders during his first year in office.

It may be that this entire furor over early debates will have little effect on a public that, by and large, isn't watching them right now. But they do affect the press a lot. Obama and Edwards would be well served to drop out of the debates now and take their case to the people. Otherwise, come January, they may find that the things that once made them distinctive no longer exist.


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