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ABC's Silly Moderation Hurts Obama

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The last time the Democratics debated in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton was at the height of her dominance, enjoying great coverage, strong numbers and an inevitability aura. That debate, however, was the start of her slow decline as her rivals took shot after shot against the front-runner, leaving her badly wounded on the issue of immigration (read that debate's recap here). Tonight, it was Obama's turn to be under the spotlight: The Illinois Senator was subjected to a series of tough questions the likes of which he had not faced since the beginning of the campaign. Clearly unprepared to answer some of the questions and shocked at the moderators' persistence, Obama offered unusually weak responses.

In short, this was one of Obama's worst debate performances. Whether it will hurt him or whether it will trigger a backlash, however, is another question.

The ABC moderators took the low road tonight, spending the first 50 minutes of the debate rehashing gotcha questions and controversies. Even worse, they did so by throwing most of these ugly questions in Obama's direction; Clinton had relatively few tough personal questions to field. Many Clinton supporters will say that this is only fair after all the debates in which she was at the center of the attention. You might remember the last debate before Ohio, held as Obama seemed on the verge of clinching the Democratic nod; in what was one of the worst moderations of the cycle, Brian Williams and Tim Russert did their best to prove Clinton's allegation that the media was stacked against her.

Yet, the issue today was not as much how many questions were directed at each candidate but which questions the moderators sought to catch Obama on. Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulous brought out a lot of the material that the Clinton campaign would love to bring up in its own effort to show that Obama is not an electable candidate; aware that some of the issues they were bringing up were not necessarily appropriate, Gibson and Stephanopoulous framed many of their questions under the electability cloak: How will you defend yourself against these charges when they are raised in the general?

We should have expected a significant portion of the debate to be devoted to bitter-gate (as it did). But I had forgotten that, since the last debate was held on February 26th, a number of issues that came up since then and that have been long since addressed by the campaigns would come back today -- starting, of course, with Reverend Wright. But after a brief interlude in which Hillary Clinton was asked to address her flawed account of her Bosnia landing, it was back to Obama with two questions that had yet to make their way into a debate:

The first was asked by a female voter in a video clip (as apparently neither moderator wanted to take it upon themselves to ask the question, as if there were not the ones choosing the topics). "Do you believe in the American flag?" she asked Obama, adding that this was not meant as an attack on his patriotism... Obama was asked to justify why he does not wear a flag pin. The second question was asked by Stephanopoulous himself who brought up... William Ayers, the rehabilitated member of the Weather Underground with which Obama has some vague and tenuous relationship (as Clinton was glad to point out, they served on the same board...). This also probably means that there will be a wave of stories on Ayers in coming days, just as Rezko's first incursion in a debate in a January led to his entrance in mainstream media coverage.

Even the questions on Wright were more brutal than Obama could have expected, for what can a question like "do you think reverend Wright likes America as much as you do" possibly mean? This had to be the Clinton campaign's dream line of questioning -- and they had to be hoping that superdelegates were watching. Again and again, Clinton made the case that she was more prepared to fight a general election; my baggage has already been rummaged through, she proclaimed, in what she was hoping would be a clear contrast to the vetting Obama was going through.

The questions might have been unfair and too exclusively directed against the Illinois Senator, but Obama should still have been much better in answering them. For one, he looked uncommonly tired, lacking energy and motivation; he was visibly struggling his way through answers, even when answering questions on Wright, a topic which he presumably knew was coming. Obama defended himself on all accounts by denouncing this sort of gotcha questions as "manufactured issues" that "distract" voters from real problems. And he clearly was frustrated enough to be asked about Ayers and the flag pin that his stump speech denunciation of the "old politics" was not as efficient as usual. Obama also attempted some improvised defenses that could have come out better; whatever the merits of the comparison and from a purely political standpoint, he should probably have avoided comparing Ayers to Senator Coburn.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was all too eager to push him underwater, bringing up further elements and refusing Obama's defenses. She brought up Hamas and Farrakhan, adding, "This is a legitimate area, as everything is when we run for office." One of her most aggressive moments came during her addressing the Wright controversy, as she used one of the conservatives' favorite line of attack against Obama's race/class speech, one that Republicans are sure to use in November: "You get to choose your pastor, you don't get to choose your family." Yet, Clinton was able to not appear as negative as she could have otherwise; the moderators were bringing up all by themselves issues she herself would not have dared to approach first.

Obama was very visibly on the defensive for 45 minutes -- and that is never a good place to be. This is not to say that Obama didn't have some good responses to the moderators and to Clinton. Defending himself on bittergate, for instance, he brought up Hillary's 1992 declaration that she did not want to stay at home baking cookies. But he did not use this to attack her for elitism but rather to defend her from it, explaining that he knew then "that's not who she is, that's not what she meant." Thus, Obama brought up a moment that Clinton would rather forget while giving the impression of taking the high road. His counter to Clinton's charge on Ayers (he reminded her that her husband had pardoned two members of the Weather Underground) was also effective.

Yet, it is hard for any candidate to survive such heavy and sustained fire. At the October Philadelphia debate, Clinton was left standing at the last minutes where she took a decisive hit on the issue of illegal immigration. And Obama had not even come at his best today, making it unavoidable that the debate would reserve some rough patches.

And the debate's second half did not help Obama make up for the first 45 minutes. Clinton is usually at her best when the conversation turns to the economy and at her worst answering process questions; since she dodged the bullet on the latter today, she entered the former in strong shape, while Obama remained distraught.

It is quite another problem, however, to determine what impact the debate will have on the upcoming contests, on superdelegates and on the general election. The dominant debate story throughout this cycle's debates (with the notable exception of the first Philadelphia debate) has been that the candidate coming under the heaviest fire benefits from voters revolting against what they perceive as a fundamental unfairness. This happened quite famously in the New Hampshire debate when John Edwards and Obama tag-teamed Clinton, leading to women rallying around the New York Senator. It happened again two weeks later in South Carolina, where Edwards and Clinton became temporary allies against Obama in what was perhaps the nastiest debate of the cycle; a few days later, the black vote had rallied around Obama who carried the primary by a huge margin. Finally, it happened at the Ohio debate, in which Clinton took much more hits than Obama but the moderators' stubborn dedication to "get" her might have helped her at a time she was trying to prove that the media was biased against her.

So which past debate will tonight's showdown resemble the most? Will it trigger a backlash in favor of the candidate who was on the defensive, just as it did in NH, SC and OH? Or was it a replay of the previous Philadelphia debate, with reversed roles but the same narrative -- a front-runner is harassed and stumbles durably? A good case could be made for both scenarios: The questions were more one-sided than usual, yes, but Obama also looked much weaker than usual.

Of course, which of these two parallels is the most accurate will determine the answer to an even more important question: Will this be the last debate of this primary season?

This analysis is cross-posted on the author's blog, Campaign Diaries.