Sunday, August 19, 2007

Jabs Fly In Run-Up to Sunday's Democratic Debate

ABC News
The Note: Edwards, Obama Ready Debate Attacks
Jabs Fly In Run-Up to Sunday's Democratic Debate

Aug. 19, 2007 —

Thanks, Sen. Barack Obama, for ensuring that these gatherings will grow less frequent, and thanks, former senator John Edwards, for guaranteeing that jabs will fly.

Thanks, Sen. Joe Biden, for giving us a new ad to mull over (his first), and thanks, former President Bill Clinton, for channeling John Kerry.

And, of course, thanks, former senator Fred Thompson, for packing a record number of meaningless cliches (and a record quotient of expensive clothes) into a brief visit to Iowa.

It all ads up to a toxic, fascinating mix of attitudes, egos, and messages going into Sunday morning's Democratic debate in Des Moines.

To find out when the debate is airing in your town, click here. And for full online coverage of the debate check out our special debate page at

As always, it will be the frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who is in the spotlight (and who just might use words like "lead" and "strong"). Also, per usual, the second tier -- Biden, D-Del., joined by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M. -- are looking for breakthroughs.

But this is just as big a moment for Obama, D-Ill., and Edwards, D-N.C., who are desperate to break the three-way tie they have with Clinton in Iowa.

Clinton has gone a long way to erasing her problems in the Hawkeye State, while Edwards has slipped in the one state he absolutely, positively must win, and Obama needs to answer growing concerns about his experience and common touch (as if the Pakistan and arugula storylines have morphed into one).

"It could well be the most confrontational (debate) to date," writes's Chris Cillizza. "The question for Obama and Edwards is whether they can knock Clinton off her stride. Clinton's extraordinary discipline as a candidate has shown through in the first group of televised debates."

You can bet everyone else on that stage would like to change her undefeated record.

For fireworks, keep an eye on Edwards, who has sharpened his verbal barbs in recent days (and not just when he's talking about "she-devil" Ann Coulter). (He will also be the only candidate to come to the debate site at Drake University through the front door -- an intriguing play by the 'everyman' candidate.)

In the midst of his six-day Iowa bus tour, Edwards told ABC News that Obama is engaging in a "fantasy" by suggesting he can work with Washington lobbyists, and said suggested that Clinton would "replace one group of Washington insiders with another group of Washington insiders."

Edwards added, "I mean, Sen. Clinton has been part of Washington for a very long time."

Certainly Bill Clinton has been part of Washington long enough to know how this kind of comment plays (and if he doesn't, he can always ask Kerry).

"Every single political leader I talk to says, 'I hope your wife wins. We want the world to like America again,'" the former president said in Reno, Nev., on Friday, per the AP's Scott Sonner.

Care to elaborate, Mr. President, on why these world leaders don't want Obama, Edwards, Biden, Richardson, or Dodd to win?

What does it say about Obama's confidence coming into Sunday's debate that he doesn't want too many more of these forums? Only eight (!) more, Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, said in a message posted to the campaign Website Saturday.

"We simply cannot run the kind of campaign we want and need to, engaging with voters in the early states and February 5 states, if our schedule is dictated by dozens of forums and debates," Plouffe said.

He's probably right, but it isn't being lost on many observers that the first major candidate to make non-participation in debates a policy is also the one whose debate performances have been shakiest.

"Critics and opponents can be expected to charge that Obama is dodging debates, because he has made several statements that Clinton and others have painted as reflecting ill-preparedness," writes Politico's Mike Allen.

Biden maximizes the oomph of his first ad buy by launching it on the eve of the debate. It's him with an Iowa cornfield as backdrop, straight to camera, talking about a trip back from Iraq where he was accompanied by the coffin of a deceased U.S. soldier.

"They turned that cargo plane into a cathedral," Biden says, "And all I could think of was the parents waiting at the other end."

Per the Des Moines Register's Abby Simons, the ad "differs from other candidates' spots that feature their positions on a gamut of issues, as well as a plethora of schmoozing with Iowans."

As something of a viewer's guide to today's debate, The New York Times' Patrick Healy and Michael Cooper have a nugget-filled peek at candidates' debate preparation.

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., is fingered as the candidate who prepares the least; at ABC's Iowa debate two weeks ago, he had one hour's sleep, found out about where his water glass would be and the price of corn -- and that's it.

Healy and Cooper also report that Obama's answer to the question about talking to rogue leaders was prepared -- though not scripted -- and that Clinton was loaded for bear when asked to respond.

"Mrs. Clinton had been set to underscore what her campaign aides consider to be her commander-in-chief toughness and her experience in Washington -- even encouraged by some advisers to use action verbs and adjectives like 'lead,' 'strong' and 'experienced,' they write. "So she chose to disagree, forcefully but carefully."

This from Obama strategist David Axelrod: "There's this theory that Obama needs to somehow prove his machismo by rhetorically headhunting in the debates," he said. "But that's not who he is. He's going to make the points he thinks are important, but he doesn't think the country needs someone who just scores points in debates by attacking."

Will Axelrod stand by those words by this time tomorrow?

Shifting to the Republicans, Friday was the Iowa debut for Thompson, R-Tenn.

He didn't leave Des Moines' city limits, but he hit the state fair and told supporters to "keep their powder dry." (He also told a TV interviewer that "proof's in the pudding," and told a radio interviewer that Congress "tried to sell the same horse twice" on immigration. Don't ask.)

He ate nothing on a stick, but he did sample meat on a toothpick, and his Gucci loafers ascended the candidates' soapbox to declare, "I am unabashedly pro-life," ABC's Christine Byun reports.

"If it was a debut, it was an unusual one," writes Susan Saulny of The New York Times. "Mr. Thompson was shaking hands but, having not yet declared his candidacy, was barred by federal regulations from asking for votes."

Saulny reports on a classic moment: "'Look, it's Rudy Giuliani,' a woman told her small son. Someone else interrupted: 'No, it's not. It's the guy from "The Hunt for Red October."'"

Thompson himself acknowledged that "there are questions about whether anyone could build the needed infrastructure in such a short span of time," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Michael Shear write.

"Thompson's TV-star bravado could not disguise the fact that with nearly four months left until voting begins in the Iowa caucuses, he is facing major organizational hurdles in his plan," they write. "Even on this trip, Thompson was only in town overnight, barely long enough to introduce himself to key party players."

The new USA Today/Gallup Poll has some good news for former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass. He places third in the national poll -- with 14 percent -- behind Giuliani and Thompson, and ahead of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

But don't get too comfortable, Mitt: Washington Post columnist David Broder details the strategy that former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., hopes to use to engineer a "coup" to upend Romney in New Hampshire.

If Huckabee can surpass expectations in the Granite State -- like that other politician from Hope, Ark. -- he could position himself to be a player in the race for the nomination.

"Huckabee comes off as the friendly, down-home country preacher, a retired Baptist minister who can soothe and entertain the congregation, not just warn them of the fires of Hell," he writes. "But the message is designed to play to public discontent, especially when an overpriced housing market is once again being shaken in New Hampshire, as elsewhere, by a credit crunch."

Giuliani may talk about his family after all -- but it's going to be on his terms.

"I will talk about it appropriately and in a way to preserve, as much as I can, the privacy of my family and my children, which I think any decent person would," Giuliani said Friday in New Hampshire, per The Boston Globe's Brian Mooney.

And Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., made a scintilla of news regarding his presidential plans, telling Dan Rather in an HDNet interview that the answer is no (and no, and -- essentially -- no).

Here's the relevant part of the exchange:

Rather: "Are you running for president?"
# Bloomberg: "No."
# Rather: "Are you going to run for president?"
# Bloomberg: "No."
# Rather: "Any circumstances in which you would?"
# Bloomberg: "Oh, I don't know. Any -- the answer -- if I don't say 'no' categorically you'll then read something into it. The answer is no."

Meanwhile, back in the real world: "The White House plans to use a report next month assessing progress in Iraq to outline a plan for gradual troop reductions beginning next year that would fall far short of the drawdown demanded by Congressional opponents of the war, according to administration and military officials," report Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker of The New York Times.

The kicker:

"They attacked Elizabeth personally, because she stood up to that she-devil Ann Coulter...I should not have name-called. But the truth is -- forget the names -- people like Ann Coulter, they engage in hateful language." -- Edwards, on Friday, in the latest volley in his family's feud with Coulter.

"If I were you, I'd be asking, 'Who is this guy, and why is he here?' " -- Fred Thompson, on the Des Moines Register's soapbox at the Iowa State Fair.


I'll be blogging live from inside the debate hall at Drake University in Des Moines, starting at 8 am CT (9 am ET) Sunday. Be part of the conversation by clicking here.

Find out when you can see the debate in your town by clicking here.

You can also go to for full coverage of the debate online -- there are votes, background articles, and video clips will be posted as the debate airs nationally.

And ABC's political unit will be fact-checking the candidates as the debate goes on.