Where Have You Gone, Joe Biden?
After about an hour of last night’s rancorous Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, I found myself wishing for one of those Joe Biden zingers from earlier debates that always seemed to break the tension in the air. Although the candidates were on better behavior when seated later in the debate, one can’t help feeling just a little bit grimy, after some of the nastier exchanges between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
While Obama’s performance may help with his immediate task of winning the South Carolina Primary on Saturday, it nonetheless underscores the extent to which the dynamics of the Democratic contest have shifted since the early days after Iowa. All along, Obama’s movement candidacy has been driven by the notion that it can transcend traditional constituency-based politics. Early on, it was premised on the idea that momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire would generate a bandwagon effect, carrying Obama quickly to the nomination. Even with strong showings in New Hampshire and Nevada, however, that scenario is clearly no longer operative.
For me, last night’s pitched battle suggests that the contest has moved firmly back onto Hillary Clinton’s preferred political terrain. Like her husband, Clinton excels at close-in rhetorical combat, sharply wielding attacks against her rivals and appeals to her key constituencies. As much as Obama may yearn for the time a few weeks ago, when he seemed to float briefly above the political fray, the race now looks to be a traditional Democratic brawl over who can best mobilize their core constituencies, based on appeals to race, gender, ethnicity, and economic status. Perhaps not what Obama had in mind after Iowa, but, after last night’s debate, there appears to be no turning back.
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