Greetings from Charleston, South Carolina. This evening Sam Coates and I attended the first Democrat debate of this presidential cycle that was sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. Here are a few quick observations:
Mixing with people in the debate hall it is clear that Democrats expect to win in 2008. They believe their field of candidates is very strong. Giuliani is the only one they have some fear of.
Although John Edwards performed well tonight the race has a two horse quality to it. At the end of proceedings it was Senators Obama and Clinton who were thronged by the crowds. They both - particularly Obama - won the most applause and cheers through the evening. Clinton was always in command of the debate and will still be the frontrunner after tonight.
Iraq is defining this race. There was no strong sense of a new agenda from tonight. No grand new Democratic vision for America. No radical new policies. When and how to withdraw from Iraq defined the debate and could yet define the Democrats. There was a lot of anti-Bush rhetoric as a result - and as might be expected - but the Dems won't be running against Bush next year. The GOP will have a new prince.
Neil Kinnock's plagiarist Joseph Biden was impressive. Senator Biden kept pointing out that some of his fellow Democrats' plans for immediate troop withdrawals from Iraq were impractical. It would take at least a year, he said, to withdraw 160,000 troops from Iraq. It wasn't a crowd pleaser but it has the benefit of being true.
All questions tonight were selected by CNN from 3,000 videos posted on YouTube. The evening was bigged up as a revolutionary way of reconnecting voters with politicians. It worked to a significant extent. Some of the questions asked on the videos were very imaginative. Nearly all appeared to come from the heart. CNN did all of the selecting which was a shame. I would have preferred a process where CNN filtered out videos that were silly, crude or obviously the product of a special interest and then YouTube visitors could have voted for the twenty or so questions they most wanted asked. That would have added some web-based democracy to tonight's interesting experiment in user-generated content.
In the video below Senator Obama presents his 'let's change the world' message. My guess is that he'll only beat Clinton if he raises the stakes. If the election is about competence and a safe pair of hands the former First Lady will probably secure the nomination. If Barack Obama can persuade people that America really needs a changemaker he might just triumph. He played safe tonight - emphasising bridge-building and competence. His video points to an emphasis on ambition that could yet make the difference for his candidacy.