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Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, many others hold forth on the ABC debate

April 17, 2008 |  7:00 pm

ABC anchorman Charles Gibson, in previewing the campaign story on the network's evening news show tonight, cooly and impassively (or was there a trace of a smile?) noted that in the aftermath of Wednesday's debate between the Democratic presidential contenders, "the questions themselves drew criticism."

That, of course, was putting it mildly.

President Bill Clinton described politics as a contact sport in discussing the race for the Democratic presidential nomination between his wife Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois As this post in our Showtracker blog details, debate has raged among mainstream media commentators and in the blogosphere over the appropriateness of many of the queries posed by Gibson and George Stephanopoulos -- especially the latter's inquiries about Barack Obama's association with a college professor in his hometown of Chicago who once was a notorious, bomb-planting radical.

To read more about how ABC covered itself on its evening news program -- the top-rated one among the big three -- see here. What caught our interest was not only Obama's bid to turn the tenor of the debate to his advantage (why not, though traditionally, such efforts fall short), but his campaign's effort to raise money off it. Also intriguing was the reaction of an old pro -- a certain former president with a particular interest in this year's race -- to the complaints about the debate that emanated from the Obama camp.

The money quote from Obama today, as he campaigned in North Carolina, concerned ...

the debate's initial focus on a variety of controversies -- some, such as incendiary words from his former preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had been well-hashed-over; others, most notably the matter of radical William Ayers, had not.

"It took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people," Obama said to an audience that clearly agreed with him.

But, as MSNBC political director Chuck Todd pointed out on his network today, a candidate doesn't usually "talk about the format of a debate if you won the debate."

Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, sent an e-mail to supporters categorizing the forum as providing "more gotcha politics and distractions than questions about the pressing issues affecting our country."

Marching in lockstep with his boss, he added: "In fact, it took more than 45 minutes before Barack was asked about the economy, healthcare, or foreign policy."

And then there was the inevitable barb tossed at their rival, Hillary Clinton.

"Regrettably," Plouffe wrote, she "seemed all too comfortable with that type of debate. She's running a 100% negative campaign in Pennsylvania, taking every opportunity to make personal and discredited attacks against" Obama. (He struck a similar theme in his North Carolina remarks, saying Clinton used the debate to "twist the knife.")

The payoff to Plouffe's e-mail was a request for those who agreed with him to pay up -- in the form of a $25 campaign contribution (larger amounts, we imagine, will not be returned).

Taking all this in, while campaigning in Pennsylvania, was Bill Clinton, who couldn't help but puff up his chest and pridefully say that he didn't recollect his wife "whining" when she was taking an array of shots.

Now, back in the fall, we seem to recall some quibbles from her camp about the "politics of piling on" (and how she was this "one strong women" competing against a bunch of guys).

Be that as it may, the ex-president cut to the bottom line of politics as he learned it in his comments today: "But you know, this is a contact sport. If you don't want to play, keep your uniform off."

-- Don Frederick

Photo credit: Associated Press

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