Mike Gravel is feisty for a man pushing 80. While I am normally skittish about allowing bottom-tier candidates who have no shot at winning take up space in debates, Gravel's performance in the first Democratic presidential face-off convinced me otherwise.
With all of the other candidates saying all the predictable things, Gravel stole the show with a style that combined the ideas of Noam Chomsky with the temperament of Jake LaMotta. "After standing up with them, some of these people frighten me," the former U.S. Senator from Alaksa said about his Democratic rivals at the debate held at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. "They frighten me. When you have mainline candidates that turn around and say that there's nothing off the table with respect to Iran. That's code for using nukes."
Asked by moderator Brian Williams to clarify who exactly he had in mind, Gravel said the "top-tier" candidates. He then fingered Sen. Joe Biden specifically. "You have a certain arrogance," he said to the Delaware lawmaker. "You want to tell the Iraqis how to run their country. I gotta tell you, we should just plain get out."
While Republicans often accuse Democrats of not having a plan for Iraq, the same charge can't be leveled toward Iron Mike. "How do you get out?" he asked. "You pass a law. Not a resolution, a law making it a felony to stay there." Not bad for a lawmaker who has been out of power since January 1981, and whose poll numbers are statistically at zero.
When he wasn't serving as a punching bag for Gravel, Biden provided some comic relief of his own.
Noting his reputation as a verbose "gaffe machine," Williams asked Biden: "Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?" Displaying a quick wit worthy of Calvin Coolidge, Biden simply responded, "Yes." He then remained silent as laughter grew in the audience.
George W. Bush was mocked when he identified Jesus as his favorite philosopher in a Republican presidential primary debate, but many analysts called the answer brilliant in hindsight. What will future political historians say of John Edwards? Asked to identify his "moral leader" the North Carolinian paused for nine seconds, before he answered, "I don't think I could identify one person that I consider to be my moral leader." He went on to mention his Lord, his wife, and his father. I bet if he had it to do all over again he would have immediately answered Elizabeth.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is happy that Republicans demonize her. "I take it as a perverse form of flattery actually," she said. "If they weren't worried, they wouldn't be so vitriolic in their criticism of me." Given the anger she's elicited from liberals over her failure to apologize for voting for the Iraq War, it's becoming a strategy of hers to convince them that she's worth voting for because she'd rankle Republicans more than any other Democrat. When asked to respond to Rudy Giuliani's recent statements that America would be safer with a Republican as the next president, Clinton attacked President Bush. Always a safe bet.
In response to a question about the Virginia Tech shooting, Hillary showed another one of her strategies -- invoking the first Clinton presidency. "I remember very well when I accompanied Bill to Columbine after that massacre...and feeling that we had to do more to keep guns out of the hands of the criminals and the mentally unstable," she said.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, meanwhile, was forced to defend his strong support for gun rights. As a former U.N. Ambassador and cabinet secretary, Richardson has the most impressive resume of the eight candidates on hand, but he delivered a disappointing performance. At times, he seemed to be struggling for words, and he failed to exploit his experience as an international diplomat to come across as more worldly than his rivals. But his biggest flub was identifying Byron "Whizzer" White as his favorite Supreme Court Justice, which has already drawn flak on the left side of the blogosphere because White dissented in Roe v. Wade.
Barack Obama, meanwhile, was able to hold his own, and used Gravel and Rep. Dennis Kucinich as foils to make himself seem more statesmanlike. "There is no contradiction between us intelligently using our military and in some cases lethal force to take out terrorists and at the same time building the sort of alliances and trust around the world that has been lacking over the past six years," Obama said.
But Kucinich argued that Obama's foreign policy would lead to preemptive war against Iran.
"I think it would be a profound mistake to initiate a war with Iran, but have no doubt, Iran possessing nuclear weapons will be a major threat to us and to the region," Obama said, imploring Kucinich, "Let me finish" when the Ohio Congressman tried to interject.
Gravel, meanwhile, said that the U.S. has actually been the world's biggest violator of nuclear non-proliferation. "We're expanding our nukes," Gravel thundered. "Who the hell are we gonna nuke? Tell me Barack, who do you want to nuke?"
"I'm not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike," a grinning Obama said. "I promise."
But while Obama may have gotten the better of the Kucinich-Gravel tag team, Brian Williams got the better of him.
Williams asked the young Senator from Illinois to name America's three most important allies. Obama started out with the European Union, mentioned Afghanistan, talked about Japan and our relations with an emerging China. That was the end of his answer until Williams pointed out a glaring omission. There is already considerable skepticism about Obama in pro-Israel circles, and his failure to take advantage of an easy opportunity to show his solidarity with our friends in Jerusalem is sure to raise some eyebrows. When prompted, Obama expressed support for Israel, but the fact that he didn't do so when asked an open-ended question suggests the issue isn't very close to his heart.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.
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