Fineman: Live Blogging the Democratic Debate

   HANOVER, N.H. -- I am here in the student union at Dartmouth waiting to see if Hillary Clinton has chance to smother this Democratic presidential race before it begins. I just came from a dinner with a top strategist from a major campaign (not Hillary's) who put her chances if of winning the nomination at 8-out-of-10. And yet, having been through this drill more times than I can count, I find it hard to believe that this race will end before it really has begun. Somebody is going to challenge Clinton for real. The physics of politics and media make it inevitable. The question is whether the main challenger is Sen. Barack Obama or, as seems increasingly possible, somebody else.

   Right now the Democratic and Republican parties have changed personas. The Democrats usually tear each other limb from limb; the GOP generally has an orderly coronation. Right now, Hillary is approaching the throne all but unscathed; the Republicans have only begun to go after each other in earnest. The GOP has no ideological unity; the Democrats have a lot.

    If Obama wants to win this nomination, he had better get after it. Let's see if he does so, and if the Democrats return to form. That is what I will be looking for as the debate begins. Let's go! 

     9:01 -- Obama is first out of the box on Iraq. If he was going to confront Clinton directly on the war in Iraq, this was his chance. He didn't really do it. If he thinks that she should not vote for more money for the war without a timetable for withdrawal, he should have said so directly—to her. Instead, it is John Edwards who is taking the fight to Clinton, forcing her to try to clarify her position on the continuing presence of combat troops in Iraq after a substantial withdrawal. All three of them are trumped on the war by Bill Richardson—who is more popular on the Dartmouth campus (among others) that people realize. He is the absolutist among the leading candidates.  

     9:19 -- It is left to former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska to go after Hillary frontally on war policy, attacking her for voting for an anti-Iran resolution in the Senate. He congratulated senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd for voting against the measure, criticized Hillary—and then dismissed Obama for having missed the vote altogether. It ain't about Obama so far.

     Now we are getting to the REALLY serious stuff. Would Israel be justified in attacking Iran if Israel knew that Iran had nuclear weapons? Would you guarantee that Iran would not get nuclear weapons? Those are the tough questions that Tim Russert asks. HIllary dodges, Obama dodges. Obama passes up another chance to confront her directly. Edwards goes on the attack against Hillary again—criticizing Hillary for her Iran vote in the Senate, and ignoring Obama altogether.  

     9:45 -- It's Hillary time—she is the center of the debate at this moment. Russert, true to form, aims directly at her in a way her colleagues won't. Why should we think she has the judgment to be president, given her botched health care plan in 1993 and her vote on Iraq? Dodd demurs; Biden says her political problems are not her fault—it's the "Clinton-Bush" thing. "A lot of the old stuff comes back," says Biden, meaning that she carries too much political baggage. Then Russert turns to Obama: why run with so little experience in office? This should be a big Obama moment. He answers calmly, but without much detectable urgency or passion. He can bring people together. He can take on the special interests. He will tell the truth to the American people, as he did when he came out against the war.     

     10:00 -- I was told before the debate by one of Obama's top advisers that the candidate had a cold, that he wasn't feeling well, that he had gone to ground for a couple of hours. That wasn't just spinning to lower expectations. You can hear it in his slightly husky voice. On the topic of gay rights and gay marriage, he speaks out against those who are "fanning the flames of division." That is what they do in Washington, he says, where folks have the "kind of experience" we don't need. Did he mean any of the Democrats on the stage? Almost certainly not. It was one of those half-hearted punches that didn't seem to be aimed at anyone. 

     10:15 --  Could Hillary Clinton be any better prepared? Russert asks about Social Security financing; she knows that this is a topic Russert knows in his bones, and has talked about often. The debate briefly turns into Russert-Clinton, which is sort of a win for Clinton. She refuses to agree in advance to raise the payroll tax cap, currently at $97,500. That sounds statesmanlike but a little dodgy; Edwards then hits it out of the park, talking about a "protective zone" of income between $97,500 and $200,000. His proposals sounded carefully thought through—whether you agree with it or not—and was much more specific than what Obama had to say on the topic. Hillary is talking too much about what her "husband" did; she isn't being specific enough—Edwards wins the round.

     10:30 -- With a half hour left I haven't seen Hillary lose this, even though her defense of Israel's attack on Syria didn't sit well with the crowd. From where I sit, Edwards has emerged so far the most forceful challenger to her (other than Tim Russert).

     10:35 -- asked to say in 30 seconds whether "turning the page" means the Bushes or Clintons or both, Obama circles the airport and never quite lands. Why not say that we have had enough of BOTH? Hillary moves in to take advantage once again, saying that "I thought Bill was a pretty good president." I am beginning to wonder how much Obama wants this. Yes I know Bill Clinton remains popular with Democrats, but why can't you honor him and also say that it is time to move on to a new generation and a new style and synthesis? I just don't get the murky, tentative language and hesitancy. Maybe there is a strategy here—patience, patience. But, although it is only September, it is awfully late in the process given how fast the primaries and caucuses will follow each other.

      There WILL be a chief challenger to Hillary. There has to be. Obama will have the most money of the challengers. He is a winsome character. Now he is suffering the indignity of having to defend the fact that he didn't go to Jena, Louisiana.    

     10:40 -- I guess if there is a news headline, a substantive one, it is the refusal of the three "top" candidates to declare that all American troops will be out of Iraq by the end of their first terms. That probably is the reality with which President Bush is leaving the country.

     10:45 -- Does Hillary have a three-point answer to every question? Apparently yes, because it allows her to dodge specific answers while still sounding leaderly and judicious.

       10:46 -- Good answer from Obama on torture. Classy—and the reason people still find him attractive.

        10:47 -- I gotta go back out to the Dartmouth Green for Hardball. I go with the tentative conclusion (unless something spectacular happens in the last 10 minutes) that Obama didn't do much for himself, that Hillary didn't hurt herself and that Edwards showed that if Obama isn't going to be the main challenger, he is ready to be.