Clift: Hillary’s Debate Skills

Except for her flub in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton has won every Democratic debate. But that's like saying Lincoln had a great evening at the theater until the shots rang out. The window into her vulnerabilities that Hillary gave her opponents in the Philadelphia debate is proving more enduring than the virtuoso performance she turned in last week in Las Vegas.

Debates matter—or we wouldn't have them—but winning debates is not enough. John Kerry won the debates in 2004, and lost the election. Hillary Clinton is the champion of this year's Democratic debate club, but the skills she's demonstrating on stage—the verbal acuity, her deftness at dodging and weaving, her putdowns of the other candidates—may be at cross purposes with the clarity of character the voters are looking for. On that score, anyway, Barack Obama might be edging her out.

Hillary has lost ground in Iowa and her double-digit lead in New Hampshire is shrinking. Everything from her truthfulness to the extent of her experience (does First Lady count?) is being questioned in the light of her evasiveness about whether she supports driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. (No, as it turns out.) She managed a brilliant recovery in what was billed as a steel-cage match, swatting down her opponents and emerging triumphant as Obama got caught in the same quicksand on the driver's license question. 

The issue doesn't lend itself to a yes or no answer, which is what the moderator demanded. Still, Obama (and Hillary, too) could have handled it more gracefully. Analyzing Obama's debate performance, Bob Shrum, a champion debater in college and the man who did debate prep for John Kerry, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, John Edwards and a host of others, offered this observation. "He slips into this tendency, which he probably learned as president of the Harvard Law Review, to overstate his premises before he states his position. In politics, you do the opposite of what you do in the Law Review—you state your position, then say your premises—if you ever get to them."

Obama is almost too cerebral for the sound-bite world of modern politics, but that's part of his appeal. The country is looking for something different, and his less-than-stellar debate performance apparently hasn't diminished his appeal in Iowa. If Obama does get the nomination, Shrum warns against underestimating his capacity to debate the Republican nominee. Obama is an unusual politician for these times because he doesn't evoke strong partisan feelings. People who don't support him for president are not against him; they're just for somebody else. He hasn't said anything about Hillary, at least so far, that is broadly unacceptable to Democrats. He is giving voice to the fears Democrats have about her vulnerabilities and her electability. That's what primaries are for.

The debates have showcased Hillary's strengths—her poise, her knowledge and her experience. "She understands the klieg lights," as President Bush, referring to the pressures of the presidency, put it in an interview with ABC's Charles Gibson. Michael Sheehan, a media coach who works with Democratic candidates told NEWSWEEK that Hillary turned in one of the five best debate performances he'd ever seen in the Las Vegas showdown—taking a story line that had been about her stumbles and turning it into one about her bouncing back. His other contenders for best debate performance: the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960; the first Kerry-Bush debate in '04, where John Kerry went from being way down in the polls to a few points ahead; the Clinton town-hall debate in '92, where Bill Clinton connected with the voters and the patrician George H.W. Bush checked his watch; the vice-presidential debate of '88, when Lloyd Bentsen demolished Dan Quayle with his "I knew Jack Kennedy, and you're no Jack Kennedy" line, and the '96 vice-presidential debate where Al Gore "gored" Jack Kemp, according to one headline.

Hillary's best line in the debate, says Sheehan: "They attack me because I'm ahead." This was slightly different from the formulation she had used immediately after the Philadelphia debate, when she said, "They attack me because I'm winning." That was not properly alliterative, says Sheehan, a graduate of the Yale Drama School, and it went one inch too far in the tricky world of gender politics. It felt a little like braggadocio, whereas "a woman ahead" is a little more self-effacing.

Hillary characterized John Edwards's attacks on her as throwing mud and coming right out of the Republican playbook. But she doesn't gain anything from engaging in a shouting match with Edwards. Keeping him in the race prevents the anti-Hillary vote from coalescing around Obama. In 1984, Walter Mondale, the Hillary of his day in terms of fund-raising and endorsements, beat Gary Hart, an Obama forerunner, by a substantial margin in Iowa. But other candidates fell by the wayside, and everybody who was not for Mondale coalesced around Hart, giving Mondale a real scare on his way to the nomination.