Unless I was on a candidate's staff, I have rarely watched presidential primary debates in the past because -- let's face it -- they are usually pretty lame: six or seven folks who generally agree with each other on 95% of the issues but are desperately trying to sound different than everybody else, or to have some really clever quote so that they make the next 24 hours' cable news highlights clip. But this year's race -- the most interesting of my lifetime by a ways -- has such drama, I found myself compelled to watch: would Hillary shed her caution and show the progressive colors I saw in her when I worked in the Clinton White House? Would Barack begin to show he has substance as well as flash? Would John Edwards populism pack enough of a punch to break through? Would one of the second-tier candidates stand out enough to begin to establish themselves as the clear leader of the non-famous group of candidates? I couldn't wait to find out.
My reaction? The biggest surprises to me were two of the "second tier" candidates. I have been thinking for a while that Bill Richardson has the most potential to emerge as the strongest challenger to the three frontrunners -- he has a good money base in the Hispanic community, he has the best resume of anyone, and he has a lot of charm and is usually a good speaker. But he surprised me tonight because I thought he was awful in this debate. He looked confused when listening to the questions, his gestures were distracting, and his answers were awkward and distinctly uncompelling.
On the other hand, Biden impressed the hell out of me. His campaign got off to a terrible start with the Barack-being-clean riff, and has gotten off to a weak fundraising start. But in this debate, I thought he was the star: relaxed, self-assured, funny at times, but always with thoughtful answers.
Of the top three (at least in terms of polls and money) candidates, I thought all three were solid, but Obama did himself the most good. The substance and depth of his answers went a long way toward answering questions about whether he has the ability to hold his own in these debates.
That's my first reaction, at least, written in the 10 minutes after the debate was over. Let me know what you think, I'd be fascinated to know.
Mike Lux is the president of American Family Voices, an issue advocacy group sometimes described as the "free safety" of the progressive movement, and consults for progressive organizations and donors through his consulting firm, Progressive Strategies, L.L.C.