Senator Barack Obama emerged as the big winner at Thursday's first Democratic presidential debate. It's not so much that he scored a knockout punch, or that he was head and shoulders above any of the other candidates. In fact, it's the opposite.
Obama held his own with the others, particularly vis-à-vis his chief rival, Hillary Clinton. He clearly showed that he belonged on the stage with his longer serving rivals. In doing so, he helped vanquish his leading negative: inexperience.
The polls indicate that experience is Hillary Clinton's leading virtue in the eyes of her supporters; her experience is clearly derivative of her husband's and has been, at times, a decidedly mixed bag. It looks good in contrast with the Illinois State Senator, who, with a smattering of time in the U.S. Senate, is running for president.
Once Obama overcomes his inexperienced perception, he'll gain quickly in the polls, and continue the surge that has animated his candidacy ever since 2007 began. The debate also helped to clear some of the obstacles in his path.
Hillary's advantage over Obama is rooted in the experience issue. But, as Nixon found out in his debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960, experience is a quickly vanishing asset in a presidential race. Having capitalized on his eight-year tenure as Eisenhower's vice president, Nixon's slogan was "experience counts." By the time his debate with Kennedy was over, it didn't. The young senator had shown himself to be just as adept, equally well informed and even more articulate than his more experienced rival.
So it was with Thursday's debate.
Hillary was her usual well informed and well prepared (but perhaps too scripted), and Obama showed that he was her equal. In fact, debating with a distinguished field that included his vastly more experienced elders — Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, former Energy Secretary and U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and Hillary — Obama proved that he could hold his own.
Hillary's worst moment in the debate came when she had to "take responsibility" for her vote in support of the Iraq War in 2002. It was not that she had voted wrong in the opinion of most Democrats; it was that she was obviously refusing to apologize — a sharp contrast to the honesty of John Edwards, who asked those who had joined him in backing the war to "search their consciences."
But Hillary's best moment was when she criticized the Supreme Court decision upholding the Congressional ban on partial birth abortion. She clearly demonstrated that, as the only woman candidate, the resurrection of the abortion issue would become her strong suit in the Democratic primaries to come.
The other beneficiary of the debate was Dennis (the Menace) Kucinich, who showed the sharp differences between his brand of anti-war sentiment and that of the other more moderate candidates (except for former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska). Kucinich staked out the far left as his own and even directly challenged the other candidates for supporting, in effect, a longer war. Kucinich's critique will echo louder when the other candidates, predictably, cave in to Bush in voting for a clean war funding resolution after the attempt to override his veto fails. And, after Kucinich is defeated, his banner will likely be carried in the general election by that bête noire of Democrats: Ralph Nader.
This second tier in this Democratic field is unusually talented.
To have a former National Committee Chairman (Dodd), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Biden), and a former U.N. Ambassador (Richardson) in the running is unusual and it gives the field a faster pace. Since the equal time format of the debate gave them each an opportunity to show their skills to great advantage, we should expect "other" to rise in the polls and for the front running trio of Clinton, Obama and Edwards to drop down a bit.
But the central point of the debate is that Obama passed his rite of passage and made the cut. He came across as able, spontaneous, above partisanship and decent. His virtues shine in contrast to the perception of Hillary as a strident partisan and heavily scripted candidate. This contrast was obvious on Thursday night.