The gloves were off at the Democratic debate co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute on Monday night at the Palace Theater in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. For the first time, political pundits say Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debated with a level of candidness that often bordered on acrimony and underscored the growing tensions between the two camps in recent weeks. As the two duked it out, Sen. John Edwards was forced to issue a reminder that there were actually three people in the debate.
Each candidate aimed to solidify their support among African Americans as they head into the primary that will take place in the state this weekend. Unlike earlier primaries, this will be the first in which African Americans will represent a significant portion—close to 50%—of the voters. It will also be an important indicator of how each will fare elsewhere, particularly in the South, which has gained greater prominence in recent presidential elections and with blacks across the nation.
“If Obama is able to win South Carolina and does so in a strikingly large way, he could deal some serious damage to the Clinton campaign,” explains George Mason University professor Michael Fauntroy. “He’s already demonstrated that he can win white votes, but if he can unify a significant number of African Americans behind his candidacy, I think he’s well positioned to win the nomination. On the other hand, if Clinton stays close and holds onto a significant number of African American votes, then she, too, demonstrates that she’s electable and can attract a cross section of support.” The Edwards campaign has consistently come in third in the primaries and shows no signs of quitting, but if the former North Carolina senator doesn’t win South Carolina, says House majority whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), his candidacy will be “in trouble.”
None of the candidates shared new ideas or policies Monday night and most of the debate centered on their previously stated positions on such issues as universal healthcare, the economy, free trade, and the Iraq war. Obama was often on the defensive, clarifying what he believed to be distortions of his record and positions by former President Bill Clinton. At one point he angrily stated that he was sometimes unsure which Clinton he’s running against.
After leading the polls for many months, the Clintons were taken by surprise when Obama won Iowa, and since then, have upped the ante on their attacks many believe. Now, University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters says, “They’re trying to bring down Obama’s overall credibility by questioning the credibility of his proposals.” Even so, Walters adds, Obama, who in the past has been criticized for being too soft on Clinton during previous debates, “gave as good as he got.”
Was anyone a winner that night? Walters believes that in the end, Obama commanded the debate. James Taylor, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, says, “Edwards was a drowning man and a bit desperate to make points at Obama’s expense,