If you're a Dem or an Independent, there was a lot to like on stage last night in New Hampshire.
Hillary was impressive. Forceful. Distinguished. Presidential. She did an artful job deflecting tough questions without seeming evasive. And her blanket refusal to answer hypothetical questions worked wonders. At one point the crowd even started to applaud when she rebuffed Wolf Blitzer. She looked like the frontrunner and she sounded like she _believed_ when she would say "when I am president."
Obama was also on the top of his game last night. He was far more relaxed than in his overly coached kickoff performance. He's one smart dude — and clearly has policy chops that compensate for his lack of Washington experience. His efforts at playing peacemaker on stage added a magnanimity to his performance that none of the other candidates could match. It does seem that he is learning the ways of Washington, however. The mother of a veteran teed up a question about why her son shouldn't have the right to get healthcare in any hospital of his choosing. Obama prattled on into a Kerryesque stemwinder on the ins and outs of the VA system and economies of scale and blah blah blah. Bill Richardson then swooped in with a home run swing, saying that all veterans should get a "Hero's Health Card" granting them the best care at any facility of their choosing.
Joe Biden showed up tonight. His passion on the issue of Darfur and his defense of his war appropriations vote really set him apart. He came off as the smartest, toughest white guy in the room. I wouldn't be surprised to see him get a big bounce in New Hampshire polls.
Bill Richardson. Another resume candidate who shined. Richardson was less nervous, although he still seemed antsy up on stage. But the governor managed to propose some of the most progressive policies — out of Iraq, full stop; an Apollo energy program to reduce greenhouse emissions drastically — in language that seemed smart and aggressive. He's a tough-minded problem solver; and he carries an aura of decisiveness that sets him apart from the Senator's club.
John Edwards. He threw some punches tonight and seemed a bit over-eager to start inflicting damage. He didn't hurt himself, but his blows were merely glancing. And they provided Obama his chance to flaunt his diplomatic skills, and gave Hillary several chances to pull back and turn the whole evening into a commercial for the Democratic platform — look, we disagree on a few specifics, and we've had our differences in the past, but Democrats are all for healthcare. Democrats are all for ending the war. Listen to the Republicans tomorrow night and you'll hear a defense of more-of-the-same. It's a good thing Edwards' path to the White House isn't paved through the Granite State, because I don't think he won too many new fans tonight.
Dodd, Gravel, Kucinich: Dodd is a good man with great experience, but he just doesn't have a presidential presence. Kucinich clearly bettered Gravel as the anti-war candidate, a reflection both of a better night from Dennis and a decent into irrelevance by Gravel.