Brian Williams and Tim Russert came to tonight’s debate prepared to moderate—or perhaps to instigate—an argument over the role of race in the Democratic presidential campaign and the matter of who first introduced the subject.
But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wanted none of it. And neither did an unknown member of the audience in Las Vegas, who interrupted the proceedings about 20 minutes in with loud castigations of the moderators and their “race-based” questions.
Williams and Russert devoted the first segment of the debate to various facets of the race question, which has dominated news coverage of the Democratic contest for the past few days, and they were anxious to force both leading candidates to address the way the subject has been used by their own campaigns.
But Clinton and Obama reached an informal truce on the eve of the debate, and they had good reason: Neither stood to gain anything by confronting the subject head-on in a nationally televised debate.
For Obama, engaging in an argument about race comes with the risk of being pigeonholed as “the black candidate,” much the way Jesse Jackson was in his two campaigns. It would help him consolidate African-American support, but at the cost of turning off white voters in states with very small black populations. Getting involved in such an argument might also fly in the face of the unity theme of his campaign, which has helped build support among white voters that is unprecedented for a black candidate.
And for Clinton, it would be politically devastating to be seen as leading a race-based assault on Obama, risking not just the considerable support she now enjoys from black voters, but also many white voters who would recoil from being associated with a campaign that resorted to such tactics.
So Clinton and Obama deflected the queries, saying nice things about each other and providing largely sterile, clock-killing responses. It was clear from early on that neither would say anything dramatic on the subject of race, but the questions went on for about 20 minutes.
After that, the debate moved on to less explosive subject matter, like the economy, nuclear power, and the Iraq war. The tone was exceedingly civil and subdued, partly the result of the rather intimate conference-table seating plan for the candidates.
Clinton, in a marked shift from the New Hampshire debate 10 days ago, refrained from drawing direct and explicit contrasts with Obama, instead opting to play the front-runner and aim her sharpest jabs at President Bush and the Republicans. Obama seemed happy to play along. And John Edwards, who blasted Clinton as a desperate defender of the status quo in New Hampshire, toned down his rhetoric as well.
For a brief moment 112 minutes into the debate, Clinton and Obama appeared on the verge of a confrontation. At issue was Clinton’s suggestion in New Hampshire that al-Qaeda had deliberately timed this summer’s failed terrorist attacks in London and Scotland to coincide with the first days of new Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s tenure—and that the new American President in 2009 might be similarly tested.
Obama, prompted by a question from Williams, deftly moved to link her statement to Rove-ian politics and Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war in 2002.
“When Senator Clinton uses the specter of a terrorist attack with a new Prime Minister during a campaign, I think that is part and parcel of what we’ve seen with the use of terrorism in scoring political points, and I think that’s a mistake,“ he said. “I don’t want to perpetuate that. I think that’s part of the reason we went into Iraq and made a huge strategic mistake.”
He added: “That’s what happens when your judgment is clouded.”
Clinton did not use the opportunity to advance her campaign’s recent attack on Obama’s Iraq war votes as a Senator. Instead, she stuck to her original point, a way of reminding voters of her campaign’s emphasis on experience: “It is a fact that immediately upon taking office, the new Prime Minister in Great Britain, Gordon Brown, confronted, thankfully, two failed attacks by al-Qaeda.”
Otherwise, there wasn’t much heat on the stage in Las Vegas. The fact that they didn’t feel compelled to engage on another sharply is probably a sign that both candidates feel reasonably comfortable with where they now are.