After an opening round in which Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama refused to take the race bait, the Las Vegas debate featured numerous examples of the Democratic candidates uniting to clash with their mainstream media moderators -- and it's been fun to watch.
After Clinton, Obama and Edwards all pledged to have the bulk of combat troops out of Iraq by 2009, Tim Russert jumped on them: Back in the September Dartmouth debate, he argued, "all three of you would not make that pledge." And all three vied to disagree with Russert. Obama jumped in first, thanking Russert for the opportunity to clarify what they actually said (which I thought was misreported at the time): "Your question was, can I guarantee all troops will be out of Iraq?" Obama noted he'd said "I will not have permanent bases there, I will end the war as we understand it, but we are going to have to protect our embassy, protect our civilians ... and have some presence that will allow us to strike ... al-Qaida." Clinton jumped in: "What Barack said is what John and I meant."
But Edwards halted the unity-fest and took the opportunity to distinguish himself by saying "I will have all combat troops out" before Obama and Clinton will; Obama struck back, interestingly: "Either you're willing to say that you may go after terrorist bases inside of Iraq if they should form, in which case there would potentially be a combat aspect, or you're not. And if you're not, that could present some problems to the long-term safety of the United States." Edwards countered: "As long as you keep combat troops in Iraq, you continue the occupation." Edwards said he would keep a rapid-response force in Kuwait in case it was necessary to fight al-Qaida. Obama called that "a distinction without a difference," and noted they both believed it was necessary to have troops nearby if needed.
Edwards again drew differences between himself and the two front-runners on the issue of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility, arguing that he's been the staunchest opponent, and that he also opposes building new nuclear power plants, while Obama and Clinton are open to nuclear energy. But Clinton then took the opportunity to note: "But John, you did vote for Yucca Mountain, twice." She also hit Obama for voting for a controversial Bush-administration-backed energy bill.
Russert came back to the race issue one last time, asking Clinton about a comment by a campaign pollster about Latino voters' reluctance to support black candidates. She called that "an historical statement," but then said: "The agenda for America is the agenda for African-Americans and Hispanics." Obama noted that it hadn't been true in Illinois where "they voted for me," to laughter, but noted "John and myself and Hillary agree on the broad outlines of where we need to go." Then came a sudden flurry of attention to the problems of the black community, including violence, with all the candidates supporting the traditional Democratic roster of education and social programs, but with Obama making an appeal for African-American fathers to stay with their families, and Clinton defending tougher gun laws (but saying she no longer supports a national gun registry, and Obama echoed her).
It got a little nastier at the end, when Clinton invoked her New York 9/11 experience for why she'd be a better president for homeland security, and Obama countered, "We've been dominated by the politics of fear since 9/11." While complimenting Clinton for her work on behalf of New York after the terror attack, Obama then noted that overreaction to 9/11 by both parties led to the Iraq war.
So it wasn't all a love-fest, but the clashes were substantive, not just symbolic, and it was a relief after the mud fights of the last week. And it was nice to see the candidates be tougher on the media than they were on one another.