In a debate billed as a battle for the black vote, the Democratic candidates generally avoided any confrontation and each sought to present him or herself as the champion of the African American community.
Barack Obama, the first African American candidate with a real shot at the presidency, received a cheer when he walked onto the stage and used his remarks to call for greater accountability within the community. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has made it clear that she will not concede the black vote, received the night’s only standing ovation for saying that the country ignored the AIDS epidemic because it mostly impacted blacks.
For the most part, the frontrunners had strong showings.
Mrs. Clinton again showed a facility with detail and spoke with authority on issues of policy and force when criticizing the Bush administration. Mr. Edwards emphasized his credentials fighting poverty and helping Katrina victims. Mr. Obama took advantage of his unique position on the stage to call for a greater responsibility when it comes to education and expectations of excellence within the black community.
For the so-called second tier candidates, however, the debate did not go so smoothly.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, whose campaign heralded today his breaking into the first tier, seemed at sea. There were painful gaps of silence between his words. His sentences seemed disconnected and failed to connect with the crowd. And at one point, he so exceeded the allotted time that the moderator, Tavis Smiley, cut him off.
“I’m almost finished,” said Mr. Richardson.
“Yes, you are” said Mr. Smiley.
Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who ran into trouble early in the race for remarks some critics interpreted as offensive to Mr. Obama, punctuated his remarks about preventing AIDS in black communities by arguing against a stigma around HIV tests.
“I got tested for AIDS,” said Mr. Biden. “I know Barack got tested for AIDS.”
The camera immediately turned to Mr. Obama, who seemed to look crossly down the stage at his Senate colleague. The camera then showed Rev. Al Sharpton scowling from his seat in the audience.
Mr. Obama, saying that he didn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea, interjected that he had received his test with his wife, Michelle. Mr. Obama, his wife, and the crowd then broke out in laughter while Mr. Biden protested that he received his during blood transfusions during a terrible accident.
And Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut suffered from poor podium placement.
Standing at the end of the stage, his remarks followed those of the longest long shots, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska. At certain points Mr. Gravel set off grumbling in the audience by calling, strangely, for an end to the war on drugs to help improve life in the black community. To make matters worse, Mr. Dodd, after going overtime, was told by Mr. Smiley that he was no Paris Hilton and would have to keep his remarks brief.
In the end, the campaigns of the frontrunners will all claim victory and will have valid points to make in the spin room. But on television, at least, Mrs. Clinton came across as the most assertive and fluent with legislation and policy. While some of the other candidates argued against wasteful spending on war, Mrs. Clinton took a different tact in responding to a question about the genocide in Darfur. She called for a no fly zone to shoot down the Sudanese planes that clear the way for the Janajaweed militia fighters responsible for much of the killing.