Live Blogging from the Democratic Debate

By Ed O'Keefe

Apr 16, 2008 8:52pm

9:50 pm ET: Apologies for drop-off in postings as the debate wore on — the overwhelming number of comments slowed down our server.

Overall — with the preface that all of this may not matter, since Obama was and is the delegate leader, this was not a good night for the frontrunner. He hasn’t been all that strong in any of the debates, and we saw some of his less attractive qualities tonight — odd comparisons (Ayers and Tom Coburn?), some slippery answers, and a general prediliction to avoid confronting his own words and actions directly.

Clinton had one of her better nights — set a generally positive tone, despite the need for her to score some points. She managed to avoid overt attacks but still found ways to differentiate herself — and make herself look presidential.

Bottom line: I don’t think Sen. Obama got this much scrutiny in any other two-hour period during this campaign, but then again he shouldn’t have been surprised by any of the lines of inquiry. I’m not sure he held up that well — not that he fell apart, but he didn’t do himself all too many favors. There are a number of answers I think he’d like to have back. But for his supporters — the soaring above his opponent is almost certainly attractive.

That’s it for tonight — check back in tomorrow morning in The Note for a full wrap and analysis.

9:34 pm ET: The handwriting wasn’t his? From a Politico story unearthed by ABC’s Teddy Davis: "Through an aide, Obama, who won the group’s endorsement as well as the statehouse seat, did not dispute that the handwriting was his."

9:28 pm ET: How does Sen. Obama not have a position on the DC gun ban? It’s not like this is a new issue –and, as he likes to say, he taught constitutional law.

9:26 pm ET: A much different Clinton we’re hearing tonight on guns, in Philadelphia, with Virginia Tech as backdrop.

9:22 pm ET: So far, it’s hard to score for Obama. He’s gotten tougher questions, but sometimes hasn’t seemed like he saw them coming. And Clinton is back to the strong presence we saw early in the cycle, when she was the frontrunner.

9:19 pm ET: A Republican strategist offers this, to ABC’s Karen Travers: "I think we’re going to buy 90 minute infomercials in October to replay this . . .  I can’t believe Obama’s answer on Ayers. It’s like he never even considered the question. Doesn’t he do debate prep?! His answer was so bad/wrong/misleading/offensive – it’s going to be a huge problem for him . . ."

9:15 pm ET: Obama is trying to skate around his plans on the Social Security payroll tax. Gibson is right, lots of people make between $97,000 and $250,000, and their taxes would go up. Nobody wants to favor a tax hike, but Obama may be ceding the high ground of intellectual honesty by not calling this was it is.

9:09 pm ET: Obama, on capital gains — strikes me as a strong answer, lots of juicy morsels of economic populism.

And when Clinton gets the question, she didn’t answer directly. That comes through.

9:04 pm ET: On taxes, Clinton is clear about letting the tax cuts for wealthy earners expire. And "I am absolutely committed to not raising taxes on middle-class Americans." (Which she defines as people making under $250,000? That’s a thick middle…)

Oh — and go to that Website (and maybe make a donation while you’re there).

9 pm ET: Israel is a potentially dicey issue for Obama — he just spent this morning explaining himself to Jewish leaders in Philadelphia. Seems like he gave the "right" answer for that constituency.

8:56 pm ET: On troop withdrawal — Clinton’s answer leaves a teensy bit of daylight, no? She’s still going to consult with military commanders, right? Not that that’s irresponsible, but it isn’t entirely consistent with the idea of definitely sticking to a withdrawal plan.

8:48 pm ET: Strikes me as an Obama performance that his backers will adore — but not one that’s going to do him much good in terms of quelling concerns about his candidacy. Again, thinking of the undecided superdelegates — if they’re watching tonight, I don’t see them tipping based on this performance, not so far.

8:45 pm ET: Obama swings back on the "weather underground" connections — brings up pardons. (!) That was his first flash of offense tonight.

8:43 pm ET: Clinton has the facts on the Ayers relationship. Taken as a whole, not a great first 43 minutes of the evening. "What they did was set bombs," Clinton said.

8:38 pm ET: Obama on the flag question: "I revere the American flag, and I would not be running for president if I did not revere this country." And he "shows" patriotism through actions, not symbols. That’s a solid answer — not that the questions will stop.

8:34 pm ET: A sharp colleague notes that Sen. Obama has not used the word "hope" yet tonight — think that’s right, will check the transcript to be sure [actually -- he did in his open, but not since]. Is Sen. Clinton the candidate of "hope" this evening?

8:33 pm ET: Maybe it doesn’t help her, but Sen. Clinton is falling on her sword over her big recent mistake, on Bosnia.

8:30 pm ET: Obama is not really directly engaging on the questions of his own behavior and language. A little curious. There’s a lot of talk about uniting and rising above, but does that assuage concerns? (And he came perilously close to saying he "disowned" Rev. Wright.

8:27 pm ET: Per ABC’s Teddy Davis, these are the comments in Rolling Stone that Obama WAS aware of — the ones he described as "entirely different": "We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. . . . We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. . . . We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means!"

8:26 pm ET: Strikes me as a ho-hum answer on Rev. Wright — something’s still missing. Obviously he was concerned enough about Wright to disinvite him from his announcement ceremony, yet it wasn’t until it went to YouTube that he grew really concerned? He tries to rise above this one, too, but again, the comments linger.

I’m just a bit surprised he didn’t have a sharper answer on this, and the "bitter" remark. "When we are unified, there is nothing we cannot tackle," Obama said in closing. What, exactly, does that have to do with his relationship with Rev. Wright?

8:21 pm ET: I’ve already lost track of how many times Sen. Clinton has made this about the Democratic Party as a whole. This is shades of early-debate Clintons, when she rose above the field. Myrtle Beach Clinton hasn’t shown up yet.

8:19 pm ET: This has become the Obama M.O. — when attacked, push back by ascribing it to the old kind of politics. Works with his base, but beyond that? The comments in question linger. He didn’t have much to say that’s new tonight on the "bitter" comment, for better or worse.

8:16 pm ET: Clinton is asked — can Obama beat John McCain: "I think we have to beat John McCain." Hmmmm — what was missing there? BUT, when pressed: "Yes, yes, yes. I think that I can do do a better job."

This is not the bazooka approach. Too much risk of backfire?

8:15 pm ET: Clinton reminds us of her PA roots — and focuses on the "cling" part of the remark, of course. "I just don’t believe that’s how people live their lives." "I can see why people would be taken aback and offended by the remarks." And — perhaps oddly — this debate has Sen. Clinton offering a touch more of hope.

8:12 pm ET: Obama on "bitter": "There’s no doubt that I can see why people are offended." He’s clearly had time to prepare his answers on this (indeed, he’s had answers on this every day since Friday). Yet he’s still not fully addressing his sentiments — focusing on what he can explain away, versus what he can’t (namely, the "clinging" to guns, religion, anti-immigrant sentiments). If the comment is remembered just as about "bitterness," Obama can survive this and thrive through it — people ARE bitter.

8:10 pm ET: Sen. Clinton aims for healing — will do whatever she can to see the Democrat elected, "anywhere in the country." (She doesn’t want to answer, either.) Wonder if this is Clinton working on her negative numbers — her first answer, on the dream ticket, is about party healing, and a strong promise to campaign for Obama if he’s the nominee.

8:08 pm ET: Ahhh, the dream ticket question: Looong pause there. Sen. Obama jumps in: "Premature," he says. (Yes, but that’s the point of the Cuomo proposal.) Sorry, but he doesn’t want to answer the simple, "why not?" (That’s a complicated answer, now isn’t it, Sen. Obama?)

8:05 pm ET: Clinton uses her opening statement to talk about "records" and "plans" — plus a shout-out for her Website (still working on that donors list).

8:03 pm ET: In his opening statement, Obama immediately turns to the "frustration" of Pennsylvanians — he’s trying to own the sentiment of his "bitter" comment before it owns him.

For those asking, the debate will be streaming live on the Website of our ABC affiliate in Philadelphia, WPVI.

7:55 pm ET: Funny moment during the awkward silence after the mic checks but before the debate started. Playing off the "We the people" banners that are ubiquitous inside the Constitution Center, Charlie Gibson said, "In here, it’s we the contributors." Said Obama: "Just like Washington." (Some groans.)

7:51 pm ET: The senators are coming onto the stage now. It will be Clinton stage right, Obama stage left. The podiums are pretty close to each other — should make the tussles fun.

7:06 pm ET: If you’re Sen. Clinton, how do you frame your attacks (assuming you attack tonight)? Her problem is with credibility — so she has to come with hard and fast facts, not just talk, in making her case.

And keep in mind tonight — no matter what happens in Pennsylvania, it will be the superdelegates who are likely to settle this race. So they will be the other audience — a more politically savvy crew, though also a difficult group to reach.

6:35 pm ET: Another name for the celebrity-watch: M. Night Shyamalan. (Does he see dead candidates?)

6:23 pm ET: For those asking, the debate will be streaming live on the Website of our ABC affiliate in Philadelphia, WPVI.

Greetings from Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. Rick Klein from ABC’s The Note here — I’m live blogging during tonight’s debate, which airs on ABC starting at 8 pm ET.

For you star-watchers, tonight’s (cozy) crowd of 573 will include: Ted Danson, Richard Dreyfuss, and  Harvey Weinstein, in addition to famous-for-politics folks including Chelsea Clinton, Wes Clark, Gov.  Jon Corzine, Gov. Ed Rendell, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Bill Clinton will not be in  attendance. Stephen Colbert wants in — and the Constitution Center has scared up a ticket for him. (True story.)

Now for business: I wrote in this morning’s Note that Barack Obama may have more pressure on him than Hillary Clinton. What I mean by that is, he’s the one who has had big new questions about his  candidacy emerge in recent weeks. He’s the one who’s going to be in the spotlight (and Hillary Clinton will make sure that’s the case). He’s got to show he can close the deal.

That doesn’t make his job harder than Hillary Clinton’s. On the contrary, she’s fighting on a  slippery slope — her negative ratings are rising, which makes it harder for her to attack with  credibility. Will she be aggressive (like she was in Myrtle Beach, S.C.), throwing the proverbial "kitchen sink"? Or will she try to look presidential, and let Obama speak (and squirm) for himself?

A quick comment on the setting — this is an intimate room. The crowd size actually doesn’t explain fully how small the room is — we’re talking seven rows of seats in a theater-in-the-round setting. Mostly guests of the candidates and the Constitution Center. So don’t expect whoops and hollers — this should be more of a discussion than a shout-fest, if the room has anything to do with it.

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