9:17 am CT: That has to be it from me (Rick Klein), gotta run a few minutes early to get to the spin room. Keep reading abcnews.com/politics for the latest analysis, and check out tomorrow’s Note for a full post-debate look and all the top political news of the day.
9:13 am CT: Obama has to be careful on the merit pay issue — huge issue for teachers’ unions. Or maybe his new politics means blowing up the model, taking on unions too?
9:11 am CT: Richardson is cooking at this debate — he is coming across really, really well.
9:05 am CT: Edwards with some revisionist history on the war — wow, will people buy this? "What I didn’t express was the huge conflict I had, because I did not trust George Bush," Edwards said. And Clinton picks up on that — Clinton said she told the truth "as she saw it." And this: "I never would have pursued this war." Then why’d she vote for it?
9:03 am CT: That action behind the moderators was a tech guy who tripped and fell, just before the broadcast came back from break.
9:01 am CT: ABC’s Teddy Davis overheard Gravel on stage: "I got to get that one percent." He was at zero in ABC’s latest poll.
8:59 am CT: The break update — I for one expected more hand-to-hand combat on stage — but it may be too early in the day (or too early in the cycle) for that. Edwards delivered the messages he wanted — but he needed to be sharper to make himself more of a factor. So far, Obama’s "bumper car" line is probably most memorable. Clinton still rising above the rest of the field — why not, as long as you’re leading in the polls?
8:55 am CT: I don’t see anybody breaking through on the agricultural front — they are all making the right sorts of points, but not much distinctive here.
8:47 am CT: Biden also has an interesting, soft-spoken response that looks inward. And Obama is the only one to connect his answer on religion to a campaign message. "We’ve got to express those values through our government."
8:44 am CT: Getting the candidates on religion is always interesting — and Edwards has a moving response citing family tragedies: "There are some things that are beyond our control… I don’t think you can prevent bad things from happening through prayer."
8:39 am CT: It’s sort of remarkable to me that Obama still gets applause by saying we should have figured out how to get out of the war before we got in. Clearly Democrats still care about who was against the war from the start, but do they care enough for Obama to get traction on this right up until caucus day?
8:38 am CT: Richardson now is getting the debate he wants — he wants all the troops out, and he wants people to know it. Not sure that message was entirely clean, but he got it out.
8:34 am CT: Edwards gets applause with a line that could have been delivered by Clinton: "Any Democratic president will end this war. That’s what we know." And the Republicans are "George Bush on steroids." So far, this is his strongest debate performance.
8:32 am CT: Iraq discussions are not made for debates — and we’re reaching a point where there’s nothing more interesting that can be said by Democratic candidates on the war — except for the bomb-throwers.
8:29 am CT: So the first half hour hits the two big issues — Clinton’s electability, and Obama’s experience. They skate through OK, but no question Clinton took the most incoming fire. So far, you’ve got to think Edwards is happiest with how this debate is going, with Obama a close second.
8:24 am CT: Edwards is getting the fight he wants. This was his main agenda item coming in, and he’s getting direct engagement with Clinton on the lobbyists’ money issue.
8:21 am CT: Clinton gives a savvy response: "I don’t think Karl Rove’s going to endorse me … but I find it interesting that he’s so obsessed with me." And her negative ratings, she says, are because she’s a fighter. She loves startig sentences like this: "The reason why we’re going to win…"
8:18 am CT: Here we go: Obama engages on the question of Clinton’s divisiveness: "We’re going to need somebody that can break out of the political patterns that we’ve been in in the last 20 years." And Edwards jumps on by making it about lobbyists: "America wants change in the most serious way." So far, Clinton is fair game to attack, Obama isn’t.
8:15 am CT: Gravel makes the argument for winnowing the field. Cheney should be "committed"? Excuse me, senator?
8:13 am CT: Edwards is channeling the Edwards of 2004 — much, much different than him on the trail. He just defended Obama — the same candidate he directly criticized all week on the trail in Iowa.
8:10 am CT: The difference on ruling out nukes? "You’ve got to put it into context," Clinton said. "This was not a hypothetical." That’s a better answer than what her campaign said a few weeks back, that she was speaking then as a senator and now as a presidential candidate. Obama’s retort: "There was no difference." Then comes the politics of hope — decrying the "gamesmanship." Interesting exchange, though so far a subdued debate.
8:08 am CT: Obama had this line ready to go, don’t you think? "To prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the state fair," he said.
8:06 am CT: Sen. Dodd is also not taking the opportunity — at least not directly — but isn’t that a mistake for a candidate who needs to catch on? He’s sounding senatorial. "You’re not going to have time in January 09 to get ready for this job," Dodd said, in the closest he came to criticizing Obama. And Sen. Biden is wading through the weeks on Pakistan. Looks like Obama is going to duck direct jabs. How about Gov. Richardson jumping on the silence ntough — "Change and experience — with me you get both."
8:02 am CT: Sen. Clinton decided not to take the first opportunity to question Sen. Obama’s qualifications to be president. "You don’t have to be against anybody," she said. Words that can only be spoken by a front-runner.
7:49 am CT: For what it’s worth, the Democrats are a lot looser than the Republicans were before the debate. Two weeks ago, the GOPers stood behind their podiums awkwardly, and the crowd was silent as they twiddled their thumbs. The Democrats are milling around the stage, chatting with each other, and generally appearing to be having a good time.
7:44 am CT: Here comes Hillary — being last to come to the stage means getting her own ovation.
7:40 am CT: The candidates just walked into the room — to big applause — but one is missing: Where’s Hillary Clinton? The empty podium at the end of the stage has the crowd buzzing.
7:28 am CT: I’m in the debate hall now — warming up the crowd are Howard Dean and Gov. Chet Culver — a couple of popular figures among Iowa Democrats. "We are excited once again about having the first caucus in the nation — in 2008," Culver said. He’s among those who know that a December caucus could be disastrous for Iowa.
7:25 am CT: And Joe Biden’s folks are out in force — they have a huge sign outside the site showing the candidates’ "ears of experience" — and Biden, naturally, has the largest number of ears of corn.
7:22 am CT: John Edwards just made his entrance to the debate site, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. While the other candidates were slipping into the building via a secure back entrance, Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, walked up a path and into the front door — trailed by a contingent of aides, supporters, and reporters. As he walked, supporters chanted, "Two-zero-zero-eight, who we gonna nominate? Edwards! Edwards!" Enough to pump up a candidate who’s loaded for bear?
7:18 am CT: A great scene — dueling flatbed trucks circling the block. Obama’s has a huge sign reading "Hope." Clinton’s says "Clinton Country."
7:03 am CT: I’m at the debate site, and it’s a huge party outside near the Drake campus, even though it’s barely light out. ABC’s intrepid Teddy Davis reports that Barack Obama has the biggest crowd, followed by Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. By 3:30 am, Obama had more than 100 supporters outside, and he has a drum-and-step troupe dancing around the block. The Clinton folks thought in advance — they got permission to put a huge Hillary for President sign on the movie-theater marquee right off campus. And while the crowd is far larger than it was for the Republican debate, a single veteran in a wheelchair is rolling up and down the block — with a huge American flag, and a Tancredo for President sign.
The Note’s Rick Klein here — I have a belly full of food-on-a-stick from the Iowa State Fair (corn dog, chicken on a stick, beef on a stick, cheese on a stick, pork chop on a stick, and yes, fried Snickers on a stick — what I do in the name of journalism). I’ll be live-blogging at 8 am CT (9 am ET) during the Democratic presidential debate on ABC, from inside the debate hall at Drake University. And check out the latest analysis in a special debate preview edition of The Note.