And the winner is?

Hillary didn't lose. Nobody else won. Plus: Did she say the M-word? And wild Mike Gravel gets off the best line of the night.

Published April 27, 2007 2:11AM (EDT)

Well, in my first debate post I compared this long presidential campaign to extended spring training in baseball -- and I think the Democrats can use it. Nobody stood out Thursday night except Sen. Mike Gravel, and I was a little bit afraid I'd regret comparing him to Uncle Junior Soprano based on his early remarks. But I don't. I appreciated Gravel's tough stance on Iraq, but he was swinging at the others like crazy, and crazy got old quickly.

NBC's Brian Williams did a reasonably good job, although I thought his question imagining that a domestic terror attack had just occurred was a bit exploitive. It reminded me of CNN's Bernard Shaw's "What if Kitty Dukakis was raped?" question in the 1988 presidential debate -- and the Democrats didn't do much better with their answers than Michael Dukakis did. I appreciate that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards all emphasized a measured response, figuring out who was responsible, using diplomacy, and paying attention to caring for victims, but they didn't come out of the gate making clear they'd defend the country, first and foremost. They could have rejected the question and its premises (that we knew al-Qaida was behind the attack), but since they didn't, they missed an easy softball question that would have let them show their strength on defense first, and get into nuance second.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson did do that -- but the question wasn't directed towards Richardson, and his forced answer seemed opportunistic and off point. Overall, I thought Richardson -- whom I wanted to do well -- seemed disorganized and unimpressive, when he could have been a surprise winner, given his foreign policy and domestic credentials. His defense of his late call for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's departure because he's Hispanic didn't work. Yes, "the American people want candor," as Richardson says. But they don't want politicians withholding judgment on public officials' fitness for office on the basis of race, even if they're candid about it.

Richardson needed to do better than he did tonight. So did Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd, who are with him in that middle candidate tier. Of course Biden got off the best answer of the night, with his one-word reply -- "Yes" -- to whether he'd promise the American people less verbosity and fewer gaffes in the future. But he didn't get off any memorable substantive answers, and neither did Dodd. Kucinich did better than expected, because Mike Gravel made him look sober and responsible, although waving his pocket copy of the Constitution countered that and made him seem a little Ross Perot-like, but then, I'm glad somebody's taking on Dick Cheney.

I hate the reflexive picking of winners in a 90-minute warm up for the real campaign, and I resist it. Having said that, Clinton may well have won, by not losing (although I wish she'd taken on Rudy Giuliani's awful slur against Democrats yesterday more forcefully). Obama seemed strangely edgy and nervous, with none of that trademark ease and self-confidence that makes listeners sink back into their seats and bask in his warm, smart glow. Edwards seemed off to me; I don't think he answered the wealth question well; having to walk out of a restaurant because you can't pay for it is certainly a sad childhood memory, but it didn't squarely take on the issue, which is the gulf between his current lifestyle and his concern about poverty. I happen to think it's a cheap shot issue, I love Edwards's emphasis on poverty, but he's going to face this kind of garbage repeatedly, and going back to the "son of a millhand" answer isn't going to work in a long campaign. But I loved his "moral leader" answer.

Other semi-random observations: Did anyone else think Clinton went out of her way not to voice ringing support for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in her first answer? I wanted a follow up to Richardson's saying he would not vote to fund the troops if he were in Congress; was he taking the Kucinich line or saying something more subtle? Clinton and Edwards both seemed flummoxed by Brian Williams' surprising question about the role of hedge funds in the economy. I enjoyed the debate's brisk pace, but I think it entertained us at the expense of enlightenment. And I wish the whole 90 minutes had been about Iraq. I'm glad we're going to have a lot of opportunities to see this group mix it up. I don't know anything I didn't know going in.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton John Edwards