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Des Moines Register - Yepsen: Obama may be Biggest Debate Winner

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Des Moines Register - Yepsen: Obama may be Biggest Debate Winner

By David Yepsen

One of the big questions going into today's debate among the Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa was whether Hillary Clinton can win the November election.

That question still hangs over the race today. Clinton swatted at it with answers she's used before but she failed to conclusively knock it down.

After a string of strong debate performances so far in the campaign, Clinton seemed a little off her game at ABC-TVs gathering this morning.

(That may be understandable given that candidates had to get up around 4 a.m. in order to be at Drake University for the 8 a.m. program. The network asked me to ask a few questions and afterwards Barack Obama pulled me aside
and said: "Let's do this again, but let's do it a little later in the day.")

But the Sunday sunrise nature of the event didn't stop some of the others from having strong performances. Obama may be the biggest winner.

He was in the cross hairs for much of the early part of the session and he stood up well to the scrutiny over his foreign policy positions and questions of whether he's qualified to be president.

Obama's campaign was quick to tout the results of a focus group held during the debate in which the participants tapped him as the best performer who eased concerns about his ability to do the job.

He came off as knowledgeable and temperate. He looked presidential and unlike some of his earlier, halting debate performances, was much more polished and laid back in this one. At one point he joked: "To prepare for this debate, I rode the bumper cars at the State Fair."

Bill Richardson also had a good morning, turning in his best debate of the campaign. So did Joe Biden.

Those two engaged in a lively exchange over the question of how fast to get out of Iraq. All the Democratic candidates want to leave, the question is how and it was elucidating to see Richardson, a former UN ambassador, and Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argue the matter.

Most Democrats are emotionally with Richardson -- let's get the heck out now -- but many also understand Biden's point that getting out quickly may be impossible and could lead to bigger problems.

Neither candidate really "won" that exchange. Instead, viewers got to see the difficulty the nation will have in extricating itself from the conflict.

Richardson gets high marks for his performance because for the first time in the campaign he was able to press his campaign's essential point: He represents both change -- because he'd be the first Latino president -- and
experience, because he's a governor, former congressman, diplomat and Energy Secretary. Richardson's been moving up in polls in Iowa and today's performance should help.

Edwards held his own. While he trails in the race nationally, he's one of the front-runners in Iowa and he was able to sound his populist themes without sounding angry or hot-headed like he sometimes does on the stump.

Chris Dodd did well when he was able to speak but he still awaits the break-out moment or the memorable one-line that galvanizes his campaign lifts him out of single digits in this race.

The debate was ABC-TVs regular Sunday morning news program "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." (Hence, the early hour.) Despite the timing, broadcast debates can command larger viewerships than others that air only on cable channels. A Sunday morning event like that may also give viewers who are busy during the week, a chance to watch one.

As with all debates, this one suffered from the problem of too many candidates trying to deal with too many important questions in too little time.

The best line of the day came from Dennis Kucinich. When the candidates were asked about the role of prayer in their life, Kucinich said "George, I've been standing here for the last 45 minutes praying to God you were going to call on me."

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