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The YouTube debate

July 23, 2007 |  7:35 pm

It's hard to argue with CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin's instant analysis of the often fascinating debate his network orchestrated Monday night with YouTube. It was "Gladys Knight and the Pips," he said, meaning that one candidate -- Hillary Rodham Clinton -- began with top billing among the Democratic presidential aspirants and nothing occurred that is going to change her position anytime soon.

Clinton was consistently cool, calm and collected in the previous debates, and that was again the case. She deftly defused a video question on a subject sure to gain increasing attention if she emerges as the Democratic nominee --- the prospect that were she to then serve two terms, all of two families would have occupied the White House for 28 years. She smiled and said, "I think it is a problem that (George W.) Bush was elected in 2000." She continued: "I actually thought somebody else was elected in that election."

It's an answer no doubt long ago hashed out in her camp. But that didn't make it any less effective.

If the main Democratic storyline -- Clinton's steady hold on the top perch -- remained unchanged, the debate offered some intriguing subplots.

Going in, many pundits were carefully watching Bill Richardson. The New Mexico governor has hung tough in the fundraising race and stirred some interest in three of the key early-voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. But his debate performances had been woeful. In a recent Bloomberg profile, Democratic consultant Peter Fenn said, "The Bill I know ain't coming across.... He's acting too controlled and too worried." Washington Post political analyst Chris Cillizza blogged Monday morning that "no candidate has been more disappointing in the debates than Richardson. He has looked awkward on stage and unable to trim his answers to the required format."

The night started out bleak for Richardson -- several minutes elapsed before he was first called upon; during that time, every other candidate was heard from, a couple more than once. Once he began to be recognized, however, he generally rose to the occasion.

He gave a straightforward response to a question posed by two lesbians: Would you allow us to be married?

Said Richardson: "I would do for you what's achievable"; i.e., push for civil unions and equal rights for gay couples (and gays in general) but steer clear of the "marriage" issue.

A question about Darfur asked by aid workers in Sudan allowed him to broach his extensive diplomatic background. "I was at that refugee camp," he began. He wrapped up his answer with a succinct line: "The answer here is caring about Africa."

Similarly, he gave a forceful answer when asked about the "No Child Left Behind" education law. "I'd scrap it," he said, proceeding to effectively list what he sees as its shortcomings.

Still, Richardson flashed a reminder of his past bad habits. He stumbled badly as the debate neared its end and a fellow holding a semi-automatic rifle in his video asked the Democrats if, in essence, they planned to push gun control laws that would take away "my baby."

As a successful politician from a Western state, the gun control issue is a tricky one for Richardson. And he was unable to finesse it. After initially stressing his support for more comprehensive background checks of gun buyers, he veered off into a poorly explained digression on the need to attack poverty as a means of controlling guns.

After Richardson whiffed on the question, Joe Biden parked it. Capping off a strong performance that should help his struggling campaign, the Delaware senator said of the questioner, "If that's his baby, he needs help."

It was the line of the night.

Biden also one-upped what had been a good quip earlier in the evening from Barack Obama. The candidates had been asked if, as president, they would work for the minimum wage. Obama cut through the artifice of the query and said, "We don't have Mitt Romney money," referring to the very wealthy Republican presidential contender.

Biden, noting that his net worth was relatively paltry, countered, "I don't have Barack Obama money." (The senator from Illinois has benefited from a high salary his wife made for several years in the private sector.)

For all the buildup concerning the debate's unprecedented reliance on questions produced via YouTube, the proceedings got off to a distressingly predictable start. For the most part, the early videos did little to shake the candidates from their tried-and-true talking points.

But the questions got better -- and the Democrats loosened up -- as the give-and-take went on. For more on the television/YouTube aspect of the debate, read Paul Brownfield by clicking here.