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Democrats Debate At The Iowa Brown And Black Presidential Forum

03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Des Moines--- After the hostage situation in Senator Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire campaign office on Friday, her chief competitors at Saturday's Brown & Black Presidential Forum took off their boxing gloves and spent most of the time agreeing with each other on the issues of education, drug law reform, Iraq, and health care.

The forum format was a welcome change from the heavily pre-produced entertainment formats CNN used in the recent YouTube Republican debates. Moderated by real journalists - and not entertainment TV presenters or their 'expert' political flacks in post-game reviews - Michele Norris, host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," and Ray Suarez, senior
correspondent for PBS's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," did a fine job asking questions submitted by the audience and from several expert panelists.

Three local high school students -- Latino, Vietnamese, and African American -- each asked questions of the candidates and they were excellent representatives of the growing minority population in Iowa, as well as the rest of the country.

Hoping to gain a higher national profile by televising the event, with Dan Rather providing pre and post-forum programs, HD TV's technical crew just didn't have their act together and it turned the forum into a comedy romp for the first fifteen minutes. Only a few minutes into the forum, Senator Barack Obama's first answer couldn't be heard by the 1100 voters in the room or those of us in the press filing room.

The moderators let that technical boo-boo slide and continued asking questions, but by the second question for Senator Obama, it was clear, even to the moderators, that Obama's microphone wasn't working.

After taking a few minute to straighten out the problem, the forum continued, only to discover that the audio problems weren't fixed and finally, Suarez took a technical break for a few minutes.

Senator Obama gave a sound check: "Testing, one, two, three."

Finally, his microphone bleeped on and he answered the question concerning African Americans and their fall from the middle class over the last decade.

"One of the reasons I'm running for president is that the American Dream meant that if you worked hard and invested in your children, they would have a better life, and now, that dream is fading for Americans....I would take tax breaks away from corporations and put it back into the middle class. This isn't a problem just affecting black and brown people, it affects all Americans."

Obama garnered the first applause of the night and Congressman Dennis Kucinich grabbed the first and loudest laughter after the forum took a 10-minute technical break that had the press groaning and the audience fidgeting.

"Yeah, I'm black and this is embarrassing!" yelled a photojournalist in the filing room filled packed with about one hundred and fifty journalists. Suarez filled the time until the technical HD TV crew got their act together.

The forum resumed, only to discover that Dennis Kucinich couldn't be heard. The audience laughed and the press room erupted in uncontrollable hisses. "Thanks for passing me the baton in this race," said Kucinich, as Obama passed his handheld microphone to the Ohio Congressman.

All the candidates agreed on changing the drug sentences for crack and powder cocaine that would diminish the racial disparities in punishments since more blacks and Hispanics are convicted for crack possession and sales that carry long jail sentences, although Senator Clinton said she had "problems with making any sentencing changes apply to people already convicted."

Edwards, Obama, and Dodd, said they favored retroactive changes in the law that would allow approximately 20,000 currently in jail to apply for early release. Senator Edwards and Obama agreed that the minimum wage should be raised to $9.50 with regular increases.

Moderator Ray Suarez: "Recently in my house, a young person, turned 18, and he received a letter from the Selective Service who wrote that in no uncertain terms he had to make himself known to the Selective Service, in case he needs to be called up. I have another teenager, and she won't be hearing from the government. I'm wondering if this is giving the wrong message to our young people."

Senator Dodd: "Yes. Great question...I'm a strong person advocating that each young person gives 1,000 hours...I'm a big advocate of universal national service for our young people. I'm the only candidate who has advocated for a national service program." Suarez asked all the candidates if they would support a national youth service program if it included non-military service.

All of the candidates agreed, but Dennis Kucinich said, "Americans should be going away
from militarism."

The most interesting and entertaining part of the forum allowed candidates to ask other candidates questions and there were two minor mix-ups.

One included Senator Biden challenging Congressman Kucinich on his Iraq War policy, but Senator Dodd hit Senator Edwards hard when he asked about his vote to pass bankruptcy reform while he was in the Senate.

Senator Edwards said, "I was wrong and you were right. I shouldn't have voted for it. It did damage to low-income and working families. It is the cause of my life to do something for the 37 million people who live in poverty. Whatever we can do to strengthen families...those are the causes I'm
committed to. Just to be clear, you were right and I was wrong."

Senator Dodd: "The only point that I want to make, and I appreciate John's answer on that, there were three votes. There was a vote in 2000, and then there were two more votes in 2001. Let me make it clear: he was wrong three times."

Senator Edwards said, "But I didn't vote three times. I didn't vote that
way three times. In any event, I was wrong on the bill."

Senator Edwards, who has fashioned a populist campaign built on the message that there are two America's - the rich and the poor - is constantly being challenged by his opponents on his voting record, which isn't always consistent with his campaign themes. Dodd's press office rushed an email release out clarifying Senator Edward's vote writing, "John Edwards DID, in fact, vote three times to pass bankruptcy reform legislation that was written for the special interests,
for the benefit of special interests, and that would have made it difficult for working families to get a fair shake."

During the forum Governor Richardson asked Senator Clinton: "Don't you think governors make good presidents?"

Senator Clinton said, "I think they also make good vice-presidents." Richardson, Clinton, Biden, Obama, Dodd, Edwards all played along and generally pitched softballs to their competitors, but the hilarity hit a high pitch when Michele Norris asked Kucinich what he would like to ask the
other candidates. Congressman Kucinich thought for a moment and then said, "Gee, I'm going to
ask Congressman Kucinich a question."

He proceeded to ask and then answer a question on single payer, nonprofit health care plan. He is the only candidate advocating such a plan.

The crowd erupted in laughter, so here's the thing:

So far we're hearing more yucks than anything new from the candidates on the stage. In response to a policy question from moderator Michele Norris to Senator Obama: Would you dismantle or keep the faith based initiative?

Senator Obama: "I would totally revamp it. There's no doubt we can use faith based
initiatives...We can partner with faith based initiatives that are legal and won't violate the separation of church and state."

During the last hour of the forum, I'm happy to report that all the microphones worked and Governor Richardson began his final remarks by addressing the crowd of Latinos in Spanish:

"I know this is a minority forum and we always get put into groups. One of the most fundamental things about minorities is that we care about all issues and moving this country together....I'm honored to being put into this process of scrutiny [in Iowa] and honored to participate in this
forum."

Congressman Kucinich, who carries a copy of the US Constitution in his breast pocket and he held it up like a Mao follower clutching the Little Red Book in the good old days before China started beating the pants off the US and chalking up huge trade surpluses, said:

"We have to start focusing on the things that people really need. When I was growing up, I lived in 27 places, including cars....People need health care and I'm the only one up here that supports non-profit national health care...if you want your country back...you give me your vote and I'll give you back your country."

Senator Biden: "There's a lot of debate about whether this election is experience or change but we have to move quickly to do all the things we all talked about tonight...What I found about the African American and Latino community is that they go for the best people. Take a look at my
record....The American people are ready for change, pragmatic, simple solutions that need to be dealt with as soon as they get into office."

Barack Obama: "I'm running for president because of what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. called, "the urgency of change."...I don't want to wake up four years from now and find more black and Latino men in prison instead of college...I'm standing here because someone somewhere stood up when it was risky and when it was hard and If you join me, I promise, we can change
America."

John Edwards: "I understand the plight of immigrants...I understand the suffering of living through decades of slavery followed by decades of discrimination and being mistreated...I grew up in the South...I support a pathway to citizenship and I support workers who can earn a decent
living...There are a whole group of things we can do together...to bring this country together..."

Senator Dodd: "Which of us can win the election and make sure that our nominee can reach out to people? We have to tone things down...We need to elect a president with the proven ability to bring people together...when I did the first child care legislation...It begins in Iowa in 33 days...To win this election, not on behalf of our party...It is our joint task to make a difference for our party and for our country."

Senator Clinton: I'm running for president to continue the work I've done for thirty-five years...working to transform lives. Whoever takes office in 2009...has to begin on day one to make sure every American has health care...to have an education that works for pre-kindergarten to college affordability...that American values will be respected here and abroad...I hope that I can earn your support for the Iowa caucuses because this is
where the road to the White House starts."

After the ice storm, and the not-ready-for-primetime HD TV crew, a final "Yekes!" from Suarez - who didn't know his microphone was still on - ended the forum filled with agreeable and friendly candidates, leaving their flacks to do the heavy lifting by sending slews of emails to reporters,
spinning the post-forum and charging their competitors with distorting their policies, voting records, or worse. Why?

This race remains tight - at least, in Iowa.

The latest Des Moines Register Iowa Poll released Sunday, December 2, shows Senator Obama moving up at 28%, Senator Clinton down a few ticks at 25%, and former Senator Edwards holding steady at 23% of likely caucus goers. All three remain within the margin of error for the top spot come January 3.

Former Senator Mike Gravel didn't attend the event. He was waylaid in Chicago, first with a flight cancellation, and then from a flat tire as he negotiated slippery Interstate 80 while driving the last 350 miles to Des Moines.

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