Democrats make nice during debate, but gloves come off on Saturday

On the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., three sparring Democratic Party presidential candidates were downright civil and almost unfailingly polite.


Overall, that's too bad.


Having been raised attending Silver Slipper fights and blue-collar Democratic candidate speeches, I was reminded of the sage words of a squatty little guy who chomped on a cheap cigar at the Slipper fights and liked to hear himself talk.


He'd stand between rounds of a particularly tame undercard bout and through the White Owl haze he'd bark, "Hey, somebody hit somebody." On Tuesday night at Cashman Center, I found myself feeling a little like that guy as I listened to three well-spoken candidates make nice.


Any more collegiality and I wouldn't have been surprised to see them link hands and knock off a few bars of "Kumbaya."


Not that the debate was boring. It wasn't. But it went a long way toward illustrating the similarities in the philosophies and proposed policies of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. (In a debate co-sponsored by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and its lobbying arm, IMPACTO, 100 Black Men of America, the African American Democratic Leadership Council and the College of Southern Nevada, candidate Dennis Kucinich was precluded from the event thanks to a late-hour decision by the Nevada Supreme Court. By actually arguing over his campaign's relevance, Kucinich cemented the suspicion that he is, in fact, a minority candidate from Mars.)


The debate was a sign that the Clinton-Obama truce in the wake of their petty MLK-LBJ issue is in full force. Obama, in fact, made a note of lauding Clinton and Edwards for their devotion to civil rights. It was that kind of night.


On the subject of the Iraq war, Obama and Clinton said they would have combat troops out of the country within a year of taking office, but each admitted they would leave sufficient military personnel behind to defend our embassy and humanitarian efforts. Edwards tried to go them one better by saying he would only leave a swift reaction force in Kuwait on call in case of trouble. All three candidates said they would approve no permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq.


In other words, they're singing from the same sheet of music.


Somebody hit somebody?


Not that time.


Obama was at his best when he was on the receiving end of a question about how laws regulating bankruptcy and credit card debt have been toughened to favor corporations over the citizenry. Edwards, as a senator, voted for the bill, and on Tuesday night all but gushed his apology. Mr. Anti-Corporation was contrite.


Clinton also voted for the legislation. She managed to apologize for the vote, too, although not as forcefully.


And Obama? He voted against the bill and wasn't forced to grovel before the capacity crowd and MSNBC cameras. He also attempted to generate support for tougher regulations on payday loan companies making predatory lending practices, which surely scored points with the section of the audience living paycheck to paycheck.


Clinton's shining moments came when she did what the candidates arguably ought to have been doing all along: criticize the innumerable failures of the Bush administration. Clinton was by far the most pointed in her blistering of George W. And she smartly pulled Republican contender John McCain into the ring and cuffed him around for his statement that the U.S. presence in Iraq might last a century.


Finally, somebody hit somebody.


Perhaps the biggest winners Tuesday were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Nevada's Democratic Party, whose officials enjoyed co-sponsoring a debate that, with the exception of a couple catcalls from the audience, went off without a glitch.


On a night that saw the candidates mostly shadow-box the lame duck in the White House, some foreign countries and a few hog-fat corporations, those remarks were a reminder that the event was promoted as a debate focused substantially on minority issues. (With the exception of the first few minutes of collegial hand holding, it wasn't.)


If the main event ended with three contenders metaphorically raising their hands in unison, it would be painfully naïve to think the love fest will continue. It won't. Nevada's Democratic presidential caucus is Saturday.


Somebody will hit somebody, and soon.




• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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