Chris Smith on the Debate: A Win for Hillary

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The crowded stage at the first Democratic presidential debate, held last night in South Carolina, made for an unwieldy and largely uninformative discussion. But the big field was a good thing for Hillary Clinton. One of the major hurdles for Hillary in this race, an element that’s at the core of her stubbornly high negative ratings in polls, is that many voters believe her to be remote and overly ambitious, a policy scold lacking in empathy. Clinton looked endearingly human last night simply by standing amid the seven men in dark suits; even with the diminutive Dennis Kucinich (literally and figuratively) to her left, the tableau emphasized how small Clinton is, physically, which helps shrink her larger-than-life political image. And being the only gal in a gang of middle-aged guys plays straight to a constituency Clinton needs to support her in big numbers: women.

Barack Obama’s fumblings on Israel and on how to respond to terrorist attacks played into his greatest weakness, his lack of experience; his hawkishness on Iran may have come as a surprise to his strongly antiwar base. All of which helped Clinton more than anything she said herself. It would have been satisfying to hear Clinton denounce Rudy Giuliani’s fear-mongering more strongly, but she stuck to the conventional playbook, which says attacking a Republican rival at this point only enhances his stature. Her response to the question about gun laws and the Virginia Tech shootings, on the other hands, was interestingly nuanced. But the words mattered less than the symbolism. Clinton was relaxed, smiled easily, commanded the facts without seeming to be a know-it-all, and came across as a plausible president. There are plenty of debates left for head-to-head skirmishing. For now, though, Hillary should hope Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, and even Mike Gravel keep stepping up to the podium. —Chris Smith