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In Dem Debate, New Sense Of Urgency

By Reid Wilson

HANOVER – Gathering on the campus of Dartmouth College for the third of six debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, the eight Democrats running for president put on different hats tonight, as if each realized that, with three months to go before votes are cast, time is running out.

But a new look takes some getting used to, and few candidates, at the end of the night, would be able to declare victory with anything approaching a straight face. Instead, the debate was marked by missed opportunities, increasingly urgent attempts to break through and, most of all, no clear winner.

New York Senator Hillary Clinton, a target in previous debates, was the target this time. But while many fellow contestants made overtures at real attacks, none of the punches thrown landed with any accuracy.

That’s not to say moderator Tim Russert, of NBC News, wasn’t trying to elicit criticism of the runaway front-runner. But given the opportunity to attack Clinton, Senator Barack Obama, who has the most to gain from a faltering Clinton, and others frequently demurred.

Only once did Obama attempt an uppercut, though he did take the most direct shot at Clinton he has so far during the campaign. Taking what could be called a play from Karl Rove’s playbook, Obama found fault with Clinton’s approach to solving health care, an issue Clinton has used to her advantage of late. “The issue is not going to be who has these particular plans. It has to do with who can inspire and mobilize the American people to get it done and open up the process,” he said.

In case the audience didn’t catch the veiled reference to Clinton’s 1994 health care debacle, a fight she called lonely, Obama took his most overt shot. “Part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, is because you closed the door.”

Still, Clinton was ready for some well-worn attacks, especially the notion of Bush and Clinton dynasties. “I thought Bill was a pretty good president,” she said, to applause. The concept is not one that moves debate audiences, as was evidenced when other candidates left it to Russert.

Clinton, seemingly prepared for the onslaught, took a shot of her own, albeit a heavily veiled one. Asked about today’s vote on hate crimes legislation in the Senate, Clinton said “I’m sure those of us in the Senate will be there.” Obama, recent reports have suggested, has missed more votes than Clinton during his campaign.

Former Senator John Edwards, who has never been shy about going after the front-runner, rehashed arguments he has used before, to little success. Admitting he voted for the war in Iraq, he turned to his former colleague. “Senator Clinton also voted for this war. We learned a very different lesson from that.”

Struggling to break out of the pack, Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and Governor Bill Richardson, jammed together on the left side of the stage, tried their best to be noticed. In a race in which the difference between candidates on major issues is miniscule, the three worked to distinguish themselves on anything they could. At one point, all three clamored over each other to support a national law to ban smoking in public places.

Biden seemed best able to break out, as he continued to cast himself as the straight-shooting candidate. Asked if he would acknowledge that raising the cap on Social Security taxes, he was blunt: “The answer is yes. No one up here is going to say it.” Earlier, when trying to clarify his amendment to create three semi-autonomous states in Iraq, Russert tried to cut him off: “It’s okay,” he said. Biden, clearly frustrated, fired back. “No, it’s not okay.”

Russert treated the event much like a typical Meet The Press interview as he grilled the candidates. He pointed out that former Senator Mike Gravel had gone bankrupt, Congressman Dennis Kucinich had bankrupted Cleveland, and rattling off a litany of complaints about Richardson. Other candidates surely breathed sighs of relief when Russert moved on to other questioning.

Candidates for the first time trained some fire on Republicans not named George W. Bush. “Rudy Giuliani doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about,” Biden said, referring to Giuliani’s immigration stance. “He’s the most uninformed person on foreign policy running for President.”

With barely three months to go before voters start casting ballots and attending caucuses, every candidate realizes the campaign has moved into a different gear. Sitting atop a huge lead, Clinton’s goal is simply to ride the gap through to January. The shots others took at her, said Andrew Samwick, director of Dartmouth’s Rockefeller Center, “landed, but they didn’t knock her over.”

For Edwards, the only way to win is to make a splash in an early state. His campaign, which once owned a sizable lead in Iowa, is now tied or barely trails Clinton. Elizabeth Edwards concedes that Clinton “does have the lead in national polls. She doesn’t have the lead in every state.” Mrs. Edwards does not see her husband’s quest as impossible. “If I thought this was a waste of time, I’d go home,” she said. “I’m not going home.”

For Obama, who has been dogged of late by stories suggesting his campaign is without the momentum he needs to overtake Clinton, the lack of an outstanding performance will not change his fortunes. Despite receiving the first question and not stumbling all night, he seemed less assertive than usual. And while his one strong shot at Clinton, which if emphasized could have become the story of the debate, Obama’s campaign later downplayed the remark. “It’s not about how many punches are thrown,” said Obama strategist David Axelrod.

As candidates leave Hanover, the story line remains much the same as it was entering. Clinton’s performance, while not exceptional, stood out by virtue of other campaigns’ lack of ability to make her stumble. If that is to change, Edwards, Obama and other candidates will need to find a new line of attack that can actually bring her down.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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