Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 | 2 a.m.
(Sun new media intern Jenna Kohler contributed to this report.)
(Sun new media intern Jenna Kohler contributed to this report.)
- Rodney Slater, Secretary of Transportation during Bill Clinton's administration, talks about Hillary Clinton's view on aiding minorities
- David Bonior, John Edwards' national campaign manager, talks about Edwards' stance on immigration
- Sheila Leslie, Nevada assemblywoman, talks about Barack Obama's opinion on education for minorities
After weeks of increasingly sharp rhetoric about race and heated arguments about minor policy differences, the Democratic candidates used a televised Las Vegas debate Tuesday to stress civility, articulation and agreement.
As such, there was no clear victor among the candidates. But that’s not to say there were no winners.
Viewers were treated to a reasoned, substantive conversation about important issues, the sort of discussion serious voters often find lacking in political campaigns.
For the Democratic Party, the debate turned into a free two-hour advertisement for its ideas, even as the Republican race was thrown into more turmoil. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Michigan primary Tuesday, a victory by a third different candidate in as many contests.
Nevada residents were also clear winners: They saw the candidates argue about killing Yucca Mountain and who would do it with more alacrity.
If there were losers, Tim Russert was among them. The NBC News veteran used his patented style of questioning: You once said this, now you say that. Will you renounce this? Will you renounce that? The purpose was to draw the candidates into conflict and provide sound bite moments. They declined to take the bait.
Voters trying to choose a favorite based on the issues got little help from the candidates, with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in apparent agreement on most subjects. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, however, did distance himself from the two front-runners on a handful of issues.
The softer tone of the evening likely flows from Clinton’s surprise New Hampshire triumph.
That victory came days after a sharp New Hampshire debate that often featured Clinton in disputes with Obama and Edwards.
In the days after, anecdotal evidence suggested that women resented the two men for attacking Clinton. Also, Obama was criticized for saying coolly to Clinton, “You’re likable enough” while looking down.
Clinton has had reasons of her own to cool the rhetoric. After her New Hampshire victory, she has less urgent need to try to drive up negative impressions of her opponents. Doing so could risk a backlash for being seen as too harsh, especially against two candidates regarded positively by much of the Democratic Party.
Some of Clinton’s supporters in recent days have made sometimes clumsy statements about Obama and his admitted teenage drug use, as well as other statements that seem to push stereotypes about black men.
When Obama and Clinton were pressed to talk about the racial issue at Tuesday’s debate, held on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, they blamed supporters and staff for being overzealous. They called for unity.
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- Video: MSNBC Debate Highlight: Yucca Mountain
The debate was not, however, an uninterrupted political lovefest. The three candidates occasionally faulted each other’s policy positions and -- at least obliquely -- questioned their opponents’ readiness for the presidency.
Clinton pointedly refused to acknowledge that she considers Obama and Edwards qualified to be president. “I think that’s up to the voters to decide,” Clinton responded.
Later, Clinton, trying to position herself as the candidate most ardently against the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, pointed out that one of Obama’s biggest financial supporters is the Exelon Corp., an energy company that favors Yucca, and that Edwards voted for the dump while in the Senate.
Obama and Edwards responded with strong rebuttals.
“It’s a testimony to my commitment and opposition to Yucca Mountain that despite the fact that my state has more nuclear power plants than any other state in the country, I’ve never supported Yucca Mountain,” Obama said.
Edwards said “the science that has been revealed” since his two Senate votes has left him unalterably opposed to Yucca.
With just three candidates on the stage, the front-runners were able to conduct a detailed and articulate discussion of issues, including many important to Nevadans, including the economy, the foreclosure crisis, energy, the Iraq war and the Second Amendment.
Edwards and Clinton expressed regret for voting for a 2001 bill that would have made it harder for people to clear away their debts when declaring bankruptcy. (Obama was not yet a U.S. senator at the time.) Though the bill did not pass Congress, it paved the way for a 2005 measure that became law. Obama and Clinton opposed the bill. (Edwards’ term had expired.)
Questioned about the economy, the candidates used the opportunity to talk about the subprime mortgage crisis, which has hit Nevada harder than any other state -- and, as Clinton noted, the black and Latino communities in particular.
All three candidates are in broad agreement: They support a moratorium on foreclosures and a freeze of rising mortgage interest rates to give homeowners time to convert to more affordable fixed-rate loans. They also propose a fund to help affected homeowners cope with the crisis.
Clinton is calling for a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures and a five-year rate freeze, both dependent on the voluntary cooperation of lenders.
By contrast, Edwards would effectively make those measures mandatory from the outset. He proposes protecting homeowners from foreclosures until their lenders offer assistance, and freezing interest rates for seven years.
Both Clinton and Edwards support some kind of reporting system to track the progress of lenders in converting subprime loans.
Obama has proposed a new tax credit on mortgage interest for people who do not itemize their deductions and cannot currently deduct their interest payments. He also supports a government fund to help victims of loan fraud.
All three support a change in bankruptcy law that would allow homeowners to renegotiate the terms of their mortgages.
On Iraq, Obama pledged to withdraw troops by the end of 2009 -- a promise Clinton and Edwards echoed. Still, Edwards sought to draw a distinction with his two main rivals, who have vowed to keep a small military presence in the country to guard the embassy and to maintain a strike force outside the country to respond to terrorist training camps.
“As long as you keep combat troops in Iraq,” Edwards said, “you continue the occupation. If you keep military bases in Iraq, you’re continuing the occupation. The occupation must end.”
As Clinton’s request, Obama promised to join her in bringing legislation that would forbid President Bush from making any agreements with the Iraqi government about continuing U.S. presence in Iraq beyond his term of office without congressional approval.
Even though the sponsors of the debate included black and Hispanic activist groups and it was billed as the “black and brown debate,” the discussion largely ignored issues important to those communities, including stagnating wages and minority health care, affordable rental housing and mass transit.
The genteel behavior onstage continued after the debate as Clinton addressed a crowd of about 1,200 at Desert Pines High School. “We are all Democrats,” she said. “We all believe in the power and possibility of America.”
Of the caucuses, Clinton said: “Bring your friends, family and neighbors. When people say, ‘I like all the candidates,’ say, ‘We do, too.’
“It’s great that we have this young man from the South who grew up in a mill town, an African-American who has so much to give our country, and we have a woman. This is good news for our country.”
Obama spoke to a group of SEIU workers at Paradise Cantina off the Strip. He made no reference to the debate and simply thanked supporters for their help. The union has endorsed Obama.
Edwards had no public appearance.