HANOVER, NH -- When the Democratic debate ended last night, there was some doubt about who won: Either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, or not. ("Where's the lede," was heard more than once in the press filing room.) And there was some doubt about who lost: Either the conventional wisdom, or not.
This is the short-term conventional wisdom, limited to its expectations for Wednesday night's debate of the Democratic presidential candidates at Dartmouth College. Those expectations, expressed most bluntly by TV commentators, were that Clinton's lead in the polls had grown so wide and deep that one of the "pack" (and they are now all in the pack, way behind her) had to confront her. There were no oblique references to electability and consistency that had been used in the earlier debates, either. With as little as 13 weeks until the fabled first-in-the-nation primary here, one of the other candidates would have to mount a frontal assault. Sen. Barack Obama, or former Sen. John Edwards would have to step it up.
Even moderator Tim Russert seemed to realize it was Clinton against the rest. He quoted an earlier guest on his "Meet the Press" program who said he'd approve of torturing a terrorist who knew where a bomb was about to go off. All the candidates, including Clinton, disagreed, and when Russert announced that his earlier guest had been "William Jefferson Clinton," Mrs. WJC short back, "he's not standing here right now." Not exactly the "gotcha" moment Russert was gunning for.
Later in the debate, when asked a factually dubious question by Russert about a possible future shortfall in Social Security, Clinton refused to "put anything on the proverbial table" until "fiscal responsibility" had been restored. Otherwise, she said, "you're going to be negotiating with yourself."
Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden would have none of that. "Presidents are supposed to lead," he said. "You lay out what you want to do. You're not negotiating with yourself." Biden successfully seized on her weak answer, but it was on an issue that lacks political resonance. When it comes to Social Security, differences among the Democratic candidates are tactical, and not likely to bother the average voter.
Biden's shot was spontaneous and opportunistic, not part of any pre-debate strategy. It was Edwards and Obama who appeared to have pre-planned anti-Clinton strategies. Edwards was quick to bring up her support earlier in the day for a Senate resolution condemning the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, and compare it with her (and his) 2003 vote to authorize military action against Iraq.
"What I learned from my vote on Iraq was that you cannot give this president the authority and you can't even give him the first step in that authority because he cannot be trusted," Edwards said, noting that Biden and Sen. Christopher Dodd had both voted against the resolution. Edwards also criticized Clinton for saying she might leave enough combat troops in Iraq to fight Al Qaeda. "To me that's a continuation of the war," he said.
But Edwards, Clinton, and Obama all declined Russert's challenge to pledge to leave no U.S. soldiers in Iraq by the end of their first term in 2013. Dodd, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and former Sen. Mike Gravel declared they would have all troops out by that time.
Obama took his obviously rehearsed shots at Clinton, too, but his were more about her style of governance than her policy positions. When she spoke of her "lonely fight" to create universal health care in the 1990s, Obama said, "part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, is because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process."
Less important than "particular plans," he said, is "who can inspire and mobilize the American people."
So it was one more in a series of oblique references to electability and candor, not to mention almost comical attempts to make minor differences appear cosmic. The political chatterers may have concluded that it is getting late, that Clinton's lead has grown so much that someone has to "take her on" right now or the race will be over. The candidates and their chief strategists do not agree.
"It's September 26," Obama campaign chief David Axelrod said after the debate. "Most people are just beginning to pay attention."
It's the political pros and the reporters, Axelrod said, who may be "beginning the get bored," and have a "blood lust" for bitter debates. From Obama's perspective, Axelrod said, the debate was a success. He got across his message that he represents "a different kind of politics," and that voters could "trust (him) with the truth."
Axelrod is hardly a disinterested observer, and he was probably aware that his candidate, who reportedly had a touch of flu, didn't have a particularly good night Wednesday; his answers seemed imprecise and unfocused.
But all of Clinton's challengers seem to have decided against an all-out attack, a move that reflects more than the fear that the attacker would hurt himself as much as his target. The other candidates and their strategists appear to agree that the broadcast and cable political chatterers ("shouters" would be more accurate) are wrong about the political dynamic.
History, along with some of the polling, suggests they may be right. One needs no survey to know that far more New Hampshire voters were tuned in to the Red Sox beating up on the Oakland A's last night than to seven middle-aged men trying to beat up on Hillary Clinton. In politics, 13 weeks is the rough equivalent of an eon. Voters, especially in this state, sometimes take a perverse pleasure in not doing what the experts and the early polls told them they were going to do. Perhaps the louder those "experts" shout, the more perverse the voters will become.
The latest poll from the University of New Hampshire shows that most Democratic and Democratic-leaning independents have not really made up their minds about their favorite for the primary, which could be as early as January 8. Only 17 percent said their present preference is solid.
Solid or not, it is a big preference for Hillary Clinton. Worse, from the point of view of her opponents, it has grown, both here and nationally, and it has grown not just because she has picked up support, but because no one else has, and because Obama has lost votes. Between the July and September University of New Hampshire polls, his support dropped from 25 to 19 percent, while hers rose from 33 to 41.
One of Obama's problems is that even without the flu, he isn't all that good in these debates. He makes a great speech; flu and all, he delivered a corker to some 2,000 students right after the exhausting two-hour debate. But expectations that he was going to be the next JFK have proven to be misplaced.
Come to think of it, none of these candidates is anything close to the next JFK, or even the next Bill Clinton. So perhaps nothing can beat Hillary Clinton except Hillary Clinton, or the combination of her, her past, and her... well, let's say her connections.
Biden, somewhat obliquely, brought that up last night, and Clinton herself might have provided some ammunition for her antagonists. "It's not Hillary's fault," Biden said, in a discussion of how to work with Republicans to get bills passed, but while "there's a lot of very good things that come with all the great things that President Clinton did, there's also a lot of the old stuff that comes back. It's kind of hard."
Short pause. "When I say old stuff, I'm referring to policy. Policy."
Perhaps he was. But one reason the other candidates persist is that they know, as do Clinton and her associates, that when voters really do start paying attention some of them may start to wonder whether another Clinton presidency might mean a revival of the Clinton soap opera -- personal as well as political, with constant questions about candor and reliability. If so, they could take another look at one of those other guys.