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The Democratic forum: What we learned

Guy W. Farmer
Special to the Appeal

Although I left town shortly after the Democratic presidential candidates’ forum on Feb. 21, I’ve been thinking about that historic event ever since in an attempt to understand what really happened. What did we learn from our few hours in the national political spotlight? That’s today’s question.

The first thing we learned is that most of the candidates don’t know much about Nevada or its capital city. For them, our state is usually “flyover country,” but not any more since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid persuaded his fellow Democrats to schedule presidential preference caucuses in Nevada for next January sandwiched between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

If the Feb. 21 event is any indication, the candidates have a lot to learn about the Silver State. During the forum, most of the contenders stuck to their standard stump speeches with relatively little attention to illegal immigration or the land and water issues that are so important to us – issues like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s shaky stewardship of our vast public lands and/or the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. In fact, non-candidate Reid supplied the most pertinent quote on the toxic dump when he declared the project “dead.” Good riddance!

Apparently, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who missed the forum, couldn’t find Carson City on the map. He probably thinks Nevada consists of Las Vegas surrounded by millions of acres of sagebrush. So he chose to go to Hollywood, where he raised $1.5 million from the adoring gliteratti. I don’t blame him but if he wants our votes, he’d better show up in Northern Nevada next time around.

I was at Comma Coffee on Feb. 20 to hear what Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden of Delaware had to say about the issues. He’s very glib and very well informed and I liked most of what he said about foreign policy, except that he glossed over his participation in the ill-advised 1999 merger of my public diplomacy alma mater, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), into the sprawling State Department.

As for “Queen” Hillary Clinton of New York, she seems to think she’s entitled to the Democratic presidential nomination because she’s a former First Lady. It doesn’t work that way, however, and she seemed oddly out of place and somewhat uncomfortable in the presence of mere mortals. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to witness the spectacle when her seven-car motorcade pulled up outside Comma Coffee, snarling traffic for blocks around. We don’t do things like that in Carson City, but she’s too regal to notice.

Some of my Democratic friends support photogenic ex-North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, but I think he’s a big hypocrite. An extremely wealthy personal injury attorney, he’s building a multi-million-dollar home in North Carolina while he continues to subject voters to his divisive “rich” vs. “poor” rhetoric. No thanks!

My favorite Democratic candidate is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former energy secretary and United Nations ambassador who understands the West and western issues. Although he won many new fans at the forum, he probably doesn’t have a realistic shot at the nomination – vice president perhaps, but not the top job because Democrats aren’t likely to nominate someone from a small western state. As President Clinton’s energy secretary, Richardson offered lukewarm support to the Yucca Mountain project, but he’s turned against it and now says he’d kill it as president.

As for the lesser-known candidates who came to Carson, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack has already dropped out, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut doesn’t have a prayer, and no one has ever heard of former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel. Meanwhile, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who believes in space aliens, provides much-needed comic relief.

In the end, I expect the battle for the Democratic nomination to come down to a mano-a-mano between senators Clinton and Obama with Edwards hanging in there as a dark-horse candidate. But keep an eye on the anti-global warming poster boy, former Vice President Al Gore, who’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” won an Oscar last Sunday. Gore has the money and the organization to mount a credible challenge to Ms. Clinton or Obama if either of them falters down the stretch. Just one question: Who is Al Gore? He had trouble answering that question in 2000 and I think he’s still confused about his core identity – whether he’s a slick Washington politician or a good ‘ol country boy from Tennessee.

My Appeal colleagues did a great job in covering the forum and hosting some of the candidates at an alternate viewing venue, where those in attendance could meet the contenders up close and personal. One final observation: Next time George Stephanopoulos of ABC News visits Nevada, he should learn how to pronounce the name of our state before opening his mouth.

• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.