By Alexandra Starr
With 10 candidates, the Democratic Presidential debate stage was a crowded place to be on Sept. 25. And with just over three months before voters begin casting primary ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire, each of the serious contenders showed a clear strategy to distinguish themselves from the field.
In his debut debate performance, Former General Wesley Clark tried to establish his Democratic credentials and demonstrate that he could hold his own on domestic policy. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean brandished his Washington outsider status and declared himself the only straight talker on the stage. The afternoon's hottest sparks flew when Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt attacked Dean for "standing with" former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich in trying to slow the growth of Medicare. Dean responded that Gephardt was out of bounds in comparing him to a figure so despised by fellow Democrats.
ACROSS THE SPECTRUM.
While Dean leads strongly in New Hampshire polls among likely Democratic primary voters, he and Gephardt are locked in a pitched battle to win the opening primary in Iowa. Gephardt also wants to position himself as the Democrat who has consistently stood up for issues that matter to the party's base.
Gephardt wasn't the only one taking potshots at the feisty ex-governor: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry forsook the more passive role he has adopted in past debates to strongly criticize Dean's positions on trade and taxes. Kerry seemed intent on morphing into a more centrist Democrat, particularly when he declared that Democrats couldn't "love jobs and hate the people that create them."
Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman carved out his niche on the center-right spectrum of the field. He chastised his colleagues for attempting to take the party back to pre-President Bill Clinton days, before it became identified with concepts like middle-class tax cuts and free trade. Finally, North Carolina Senator John Edwards mixed both policy and hagiography to portray himself as the group's warrior for the middle class.
The pressure was heaviest for Clark, the neophyte politician who now leads in the national polls among Democrats but has yet to really feel heat in the campaign. Perhaps because Clark's bid is so young (nine days old, as he reminded the audience) and in part because of his military background, the other candidates seemed reluctant to take him on -- yet.
The general seemed to put to rest questions of whether he was truly a Democrat (he first announced he was a Democrat earlier this month after voting for Republican Presidents in the past). But many of his answers were hazy, to the point where two of the CNBC commentators moderating the debate asked him to elucidate further. And sometimes Clark's responses devolved into almost embarrassing tropes, like his announcement that free trade "can help move this whole mankind forward." Steve MacMahon, adviser to Governor Dean, observed wryly after the debate: "Wesley Clark was incredibly general today."
Clark and Dean are now the outsiders in the field -- the only non-Washingtonian candidates who have a real shot at winning the nomination. But the former general's strategy seems to be casting himself as less angry and more optimistic about the future than Dean. If he's successful, he could bring more independents and Republicans into the Democratic fold next year.
TEST OF FIRE.
"As angry as we [Democrats] are -- and I am one of them -- this is about taking our country forward," Clark declared at an event sponsored by the Democratic National Committee after The Wall Street Journal-CNBC debate. He presented himself as the party's "newest Democrat," one who would be joined by "hundreds of thousands more."
The optimism theme was front-and-center in Clark's final debate statement, too: "If I am President, we are going to build on a new kind of American patriotism," he said. "We are going to reach out to people and bring them together based on a concept of public service." Clark faces a test of fire over the coming weeks, however, and his domestic policy expertise seemed thin on the stage compared with the other candidates.
And after years as part of the military Establishment, he has also adopted a big dose of Washington-speak. For example, at the DNC event he referred to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as "Condi." And during the debate he spoke about "Sarbanes-Oxley legislation" -- rather than saying something more generic and accessible like "cleaning up the accounting profession." This penchant for jargon might undercut one of his biggest advantages -- that he's not a career politician.
The jury isn't out on just Clark. He and Dean might have the most momentum in the Democratic field right now, but it's too early to write Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, or Gephardt off. Each has a strategy to emerge from the crowded pack -- whether it be hugging the center, like Lieberman, or positioning themselves as defenders of a squeezed middle class, like Gephardt and Edwards.
Each of them made progress at this debate in carving out their niche in the Democratic field. And articulating a position is the first step to convincing voters it's the one they should adopt, too. It's still a wide-open race.
Starr covers politics from BusinessWeek's Washington bureau
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht