In a made-for-television event with viewer-generated questions from YouTube, the eight Democratic presidential candidates took to the debate stage for the fourth time this political season for a session that may be more remembered for the questions than for the answers.
The topics of the questions — ranging from the provocative to the humorous — submitted via video on YouTube ranged from partisan gridlock in Washington to the war in Iraq, health care, and global warming — a topic brought to the debate courtesy of a snowman puppet in one of the quirkier videos.
Consistently polling at the top of the Democratic field, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was clearly the target for her closest competitors. Both Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards attempted to paint themselves as candidates who represent change and the future and Clinton as the candidate who represents the past.
"We don't just need a change in political parties in Washington. We've got to have a change in attitudes of those who are representing the people, America. And part of the reason I don't take PAC [political action committee] money, I don't take federal lobbyists' money, is because we've got to get the national interests up front as opposed to the special interests," said Obama in a not-so-subtle dig at Clinton who accepts PAC money and contributions from federal lobbyists.
"Do you believe that compromise, triangulation will bring about big change? I don't," said Edwards, using a word — "triangulation" — strongly identified with the politics of the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
Clinton also made the case for change in Washington, but she portrayed herself as the candidate with the most experience and the strongest hand to bring about that change beginning her first day in the Oval Office, should she win the presidency.
"The issue is: Which of us is ready to lead on Day 1? I have 35 years of being an instrument and agent of change, before I was ever a public official. And during the time that I've been privileged to serve as first lady and now as senator, I've worked to bring people together, to find common ground where we can and then to stand our ground where we can't," said Clinton.
On Iraq, Obama, in a more confident and sturdy debate performance than we had seen previously, once again displayed his desire for a stepped-up direct engagement with Clinton.
"One thing I have to say about Sen. Clinton's comments a couple of moments ago. I think it's terrific that she's asking for plans from the Pentagon, and I think the Pentagon response was ridiculous. But what I also know is that the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in," Obama said in his first direct barb thrown at the front-runner in a debate.
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who has been struggling with fundraising and poll position, was most animated on the war in Iraq as he demanded what he labeled truth-telling on what it will take to safely remove American troops from Iraq.
"It's time to start to tell the truth. The truth of the matter is: If we started today, it would take one year, one year to get 160,000 troops physically out of Iraq, logistically," said Biden in comments that seemed particularly aimed at New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and his plan to remove all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2007.
The other foreign policy question that drew some bright lines between the front-runners focused on presidential diplomacy. A questioner asked whether the candidates were willing to talk directly with the leaders of countries hostile to America such as Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba. Obama said that he would do so. Clinton, in a response being promoted by her campaign as an example of the "strength and experience" theme it frequently invokes, said she would not promise to meet with those leaders in her first year in office.
"I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are," she said, adding "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes."
And in yet another example showing just how much the political terrain has shifted since the last presidential election, the Democrats on the stage appeared unconcerned about a political backlash for criticizing ongoing military operations. Clinton described Afghanistan as the place "where we're losing the fight to al Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden."
Imagine what the emboldened Bush-Cheney/Republican National Committee operation would have done with those words in 2003-4 from a Democratic presidential candidate.
The Edwards campaign utilized its allotted 30 seconds provided by CNN for a campaign-generated YouTube video by debuting a clever video mocking the excessive news media coverage of the candidate's expensive haircuts by playing the song "Hair" from the movie version of the musical of the same name underneath video images of Alberto Gonzales, President Bush under the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner and stranded residents in flooded New Orleans. The video asks viewers to consider "what really matters?"
Clinton and Obama deftly tackled questions about their gender and race respectively and Edwards and Obama seemed to disagree about Clinton's sartorial choice for the evening.
We also learned that if Biden had to pick one Republican to serve as his running mate, he would pick the Iraq War critic Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and would consider Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., his colleague on the Foreign Relations Committee, as a possible secretary of state.
After the eight candidates walked off the stage, it seemed clear that the stars of the evening were the YouTubers who submitted questions that provided for a lively debate and forced the candidates away from avoiding questions as simply media obsessions.