Parsing the Debate

The blogosphere erupted before last night’s debate on ABC was even over, and the eruption began on the pages of ABC’s own Web site. It was almost one hour before hosts Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos got around to asking a question about a real issue, instead focusing on Rev. Wright, "Bittergate," Clinton’s fake recollections about landing under fire in Bosnia, and, yes, flag lapel pins. At that point, it was only my concern not to miss any news that kept me tuned in. The question today is: What effect will all this silliness have on next Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary? The immediate loser was Obama. He was on the defensive for a full hour and even though his answers were fine, they were delivered in the kind of measured, cautious tones that were the exact opposite of the authentic-ness that Obama has put at the center of his political persona. His best moment was when he confronted Stephanopoulos and said that his line of questioning, the "gotcha" game, was a precise example of the kind of politics-as-distraction that he was trying to change. Still, it was not a good night for the frontrunner. The longer term consequences will be more difficult to parse. There are two types of late-deciders in Democratic primaries. Some are genuinely torn between two attractive candidates, concerned about electability, and acutely aware of the difficulties both Democrats face going up against John McCain. They may be swayed toward Clinton when they ponder an endless autumn of Obama facing the kinds of questions he faced last night. Other late-deciders are light consumers of news. They probably were not watching the debate last night, but will look to this morning’s headlines to tell them about it. And, many news accounts led with the fact that Clinton admitted Obama could win in November for the first time. It is almost impossible to know what will sway these voters, but I suspect that they will follow their gut instincts, voting for change and Obama or for the Clinton brand-name based on fond memories of the economic good times of the 1990s. The other possibility is that a backlash will benefit Obama. The questioning last night was so negative, so trivial, and so disproportionately aimed at Obama, that his followers and those leaning toward him will be fired up. A similar phenomenon happened in the days before the New Hampshire primary. Clinton’s surprising third-place finish in Iowa, and the way the press corps was licking its chops at her presumed imminent demise led voters to rush to her defense. Democrats like these candidates, and they do not want to see them disrespected by the media. The other bit of good news for Obama is that it is unclear that last night’s debate will have legs. The Pope is here in America and his picture is above the fold on the front page of most newspapers. Many voters in Pennsylvania will not tune into the primary until his plane leaves JFK Sunday night. By then, last night’s debate will be a distant memory. Michael Sean Winters
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