Chris Dodd: Dodd is in the same position as Biden but is slightly worse off, since Biden tends to be a better orator. His goal is to do something roundly memorable. That’s a lot easier said than done.
Bill Richardson: Richardson probably has more riding on this one debate than any other candidate. He is at the top of the second tier and has been praised for his stump performances. He has to come away with a performance that blows away the press. Again, that’s easier said than done. His best bet is to stress what makes him different from the other candidates — his position as a statehouse leader; his foreign-policy experience, and, of course, his Hispanic roots.
John Edwards: Edwards is in the best position to put in a better-than-expected performance. He’s run before and is good on the stump so one would expect him to do well. But because Obama and Hillary have gotten so much of the early publicity, the general public and the press have forgotten how good Edwards can be. Thus he has a decent chance to emerge from the debate with momentum. It would be hardly surprising if he were the candidate who went after both Obama and Hillary in a friendly way and created the most memorable highlight of the encounter.
Hillary Clinton: This is an important appearance for Clinton. Her supporters have been maintaining all along that viewers have a false impression of her, one based on her tenure as first lady rather than on her time in the Senate. This is her chance to impress. The more she can appear warm and composed, the better off she will be — especially since she is bound to be attacked by the other candidates. (Women who are attacked in debates usually have a slight advantage because viewers empathize with them.) If Hillary can good-humoredly sidestep the parries, she will win points. Still, expectations for her are high, so it will be hard for her to exceed them. Her main goal is to come out of the debate without losing ground.
Barack Obama: Obama is in a peculiar position. Viewers (and a good many in the press corps) have heard what a compelling communicator he is, but few have actually heard his campaign rhetoric. There is no way he is going to do as well here as he does with a prepared text (remember the 2004 convention keynote speech), so the key for him will be to deliver a memorable sound bite and to appear wise and composed beyond his years. He, like Hillary, probably has more to lose than to gain with this early encounter. Expect a very laid-back and relaxed Obama to deliver short policy lectures, as he sometimes does on the stump. If he does that, he’ll be fine for now.
The insider’s guide to scoring the first five minutes of the Democratic debate
● Camera pans the field; reporters anxiously inspect Obama and Edwards to see if they’ve taken the trouble to wear neckties: 1 point
● Debate hosted by second-rate NBC News celebrity that network is trying to boost: 1 point
● That celebrity turns out to be Don Imus: 5 points
● Moderator gives obligatory lecture to audience about refraining from applause: 1 point
● Audience applauds the warning; moderator looks confused: 1 point
● Hillary begins by paying tribute to Elizabeth Edwards, thus showing that she has a heart and is a friend to women everywhere: 1 point
● Another candidate pays tribute to Elizabeth Edwards before Hillary’s turn; Hillary opens her eyes even wider than usual: 1 point
● Camera shows Elizabeth Edwards smiling in audience, thus giving her more favorable air time than Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich combined: 1 point
● Joe Biden goes over the time limit in his opening: 1 point
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