The audience itself was interesting. I gather official registration for YearlyKos topped out at around 1500, but with the media and campaign worker hordes present, the forum may have drawn close to 2000 people. At the very beginning of the forum, Bai announced they would not follow the usual rule of seeking to suppress audience reactions. That turned out to be a useful if counter-intuitive decision. The audience reacted in some form to almost every candidate comment, including subtleties that would usually not elicit much response. It felt a bit like being in the middle of a huge focus group of political junkies.
When the candidates first trooped onto the stage, Obama won the initial applause-o-meter contest. But every candidate, including Hillary Clinton (who didn’t draw the initial boos some had anticipated) had at least one moment of heavy applause during the debate. Perhaps the most unusual development, as compared to previous debates, was the feral roar that met several of Mike Gravel’s patented screeds, though at least in my section of the room, quite a few people were laughing and grimacing as they applauded, clearly viewing Gravel as prime entertainment (and the Alaskan got his own share of hisses and groans when he was asked about his support for a national sales tax).
There was not a whole lot of overt audience-pandering during the forum. Clinton mentioned her support for “net neutrality” a couple of times. Kucinich clearly thought this particular audience needed to be reminded repeatedly of his support for a single-payer health care system. Dodd managed to work in a reference to his appearance last week on Bill O’Reilly’s show to challenge the host’s attacks on this very conference. And Edwards (generally considered the debate “winner” if there was one) followed a very consistent tack of stressing his combative attitude towards lobbyists (more about that in a minute) and Republicans; at one point, he even said his campaign was not being guided by a “political strategy,” a clever allusion to the netroots aversion to “poll-driven centrists.”
As you probably know if you saw any of the TV or newspaper coverage of the forum, the one “gotcha” moment occurred when Matt Bai directly asked HRC to respond to Edwards’ demand (which he repeated a second time to make sure the trap got properly baited) that all candidates follow his and Obama’s example by refusing to accept “a single dime from lobbyists.” After curtly refusing to give her fundraisers heart attacks by suddenly ruling out PAC contributions, Clinton did something I’ve never seen her do: she flubbed an answer. Instead of immediately touting her support for public financing (which Dodd did in a follow-up, to rapturous applause), or citing the need to match Republican campaign dollars, or even blurring the issue by reminding everyone that progressive causes have lobbyists, too–she basically said lobbyists represent real people, and she wants to represent everybody. It did not go over well.
But other than that, HRC, like all the candidates, were well-received. (At one point, McCarter was asking her a question about the current administration’s policies, and mistakenly said “President Clinton” instead of “President Bush.” HRC immediately quipped: “A Freudian slip.”) Efforts by Richardson, Dodd and Kucinich to hit Clinton and Obama over residual troop deployments in Iraq or a funding cutoff strategy fizzled, as they did in the CNN-YouTube debate.
Obama started slowly, but warmed up as the debate proceeded, and won high marks for a very substantive answer to an unusual question about how to deal with China. Richardson did as well as he could with the very first question of the debate (from McCarter), about his infamous debate citation of Whizzer White as a model for his Supreme Court appointments. (“I screwed up there,” he admitted, before going into a comfortingly conventional statement of commitment to pro-choice judges). After that, the New Mexican looked more relaxed than usual in the debate format, and got his share of applause. He also drew lusty boos after going out of his way to repeat his pledge to support a balanced budget constitutional amendment (via Ezra Klein, I just read Ben Smith’s great quip that this was “the first fiscal policy booing on record.”) Chris Dodd got a higher percentage of questions than in past debates, and took good advantage of them.
The perception that Edwards probably did himself more good than his rivals was reinforced by his answer to a question that was definitely the softest softball of the forum: an audience inquiry as to whether the candidates would appoint an Official White House Blogger. “I will,” he said. “And her name will be Elizabeth Edwards.” Clearly, the man didn’t win all those trials by being slow on the uptake.
Somehow or other, there were no questions about energy policy (which much as I think global climiate change is an overriding issue, I didn’t mind that the candidates didn’t soak up a third of the debate reciting their 35-point energy plans), and not much about health care. But it was a good event, with positive vibes attributable in no small part to the feeling that the netroots had “arrived”‘ by attracting the candidates.