As the only remaining uncommitted BMG front-pager, here’s my assessment. No one did “badly,” and no one made any big mistakes that I caught (except when Richardson said he’d negotiate with the “Soviet Union” — oopsie).
I’d say that both John Edwards and Hillary Clinton had superb nights. They were both strong and focused, and they both took the opportunity to make their case for why they are the best agents for change. You may or may not agree with their arguments, but they made them as clearly as I’ve heard either of them do recently.
Clinton, thank heavens, seems to have abandoned the ill-advised “warm and fuzzy” makeover that she tried to apply in the final days in Iowa. She’s not warm and fuzzy — and she doesn’t need to be. I thought her answer to the guy from WMUR on the question about who’s “likeable” was brilliant — she basically made fun of him, saying, in effect, “what a stupid question” without actually using those words. More generally, she was, well, presidential for most of the night — she gave thoughtful answers to serious questions, and she made a good case for herself as a change agent.
Edwards, too, was given enough time to explain why he is taking such an aggressive line in this campaign, and he made the case well. As I said, you may not agree with it, but after tonight you can’t say you don’t understand why he’s doing it. He did have one bad moment, though — when his self-described biggest accomplishment in the Senate (the Patients’ Bill of Rights) was revealed never to have passed the House. I heard echoes of his debate with Dick Cheney, when he didn’t have a good answer to Cheney’s attacking his “undistinguished” career in the Senate.
Obama was solid and thoughtful — but that’s not his strength, and that’s not why he won Iowa. He still hasn’t solved the problem of translating his electrifying performance on the stump (most recently seen at top form after his Iowa win) into the debate setting, even this more relaxed one. He did fine, and didn’t make any big mistakes (though his weird offhand comment in the “likeability” exchange was unfortunate), but I doubt that he significantly advanced his cause tonight, whereas I’d say Edwards and Clinton did.
Bill Richardson did fine. But in general, I have to say that his answers struck me as less well thought-out, less nuanced, than those of the other three. He’s not going to break into the top three in NH, and I wonder whether he’ll stick it out past Nevada.
Overall: again, a terrific night for the Democrats. The last question, in which they all talked about how much better they are as a group than the Republicans, was spot-on.