First, I'd like to apologize. That's what you do after Des Moines Register debates, apparently. Wednesday after the GOP debate, Mike Huckabee apologized to Mitt Romney for his remarks about Mormonism. Thursday the story coming out of the debate was Hillary Clinton's apology to Barack Obama for her New Hampshire co-chairman (who has since resigned), who was talking about Obama's past drug use.
The political press focused on the apologies because the debates lacked conflict. The candidates desperately want the Des Moines Register endorsement, and they weren't going to get docked points by misbehaving at the paper's debate.
With 21 days before the caucuses, we are moving into the "closing argument" phase, when candidates try to deliver their final message about themselves. If a candidate makes the pitch right, the closing argument should be the essential message a voter blurts out in a word-association game. Here, then, are the words that came to mind for me after watching the 90 minute event.
Fight: When John Edwards isn't banging his fist on the table, he's shoving it under the nose of big business. In nearly every debate answer, he knocked rapacious corporations and vowed to take them down. He was a bit of a One-Note Johnny, but that's fine in politics. The discipline made him perhaps the most effective candidate of the day. The more appealing second half of his pitch came at the end of the debate when he was asked to name his New Year's resolution. "To remember that in the midst of political hoopla," he said, "that somewhere in America tonight a child will go to bed hungry, somewhere in America tonight a family will have to go to the emergency room and beg for health care for a sick child."
Work: After the debate, Hillary Clinton's pollster Mark Penn used the word perspiration repeatedly to describe how his candidate would deliver for voters. Here's how Clinton put it herself during the debate: "Some people believe you get [change] by demanding it. Some people believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change." She's knocking first Edwards and then offering herself as the pragmatic workhorse. To accentuate this pitch, next week Clinton will embark on a five-day, 99-county tour of the state, a considerable show of effort. She may get down and do push-ups at some point.
Clinton is not just saying that taxpayers will get their money's worth, but that she will be sweating for them. As she says in her new ad, she "will stand up for you every day in the White House." This message is matched with a new empathy push. She gets regular folk. That's what her mother says in Clinton's other new ad and what the candidate was going after when in the debate she talked about Iowans feeling "over a trap door." This message has essential elements of Bill Clinton 101: I feel your pain and will work till the last dog dies.
The trouble for Clinton in her closing message is that I've heard a lot of versions of it from her campaign aides in the past week in Iowa. Her campaign is about women, health care, experience, change, and empathy. To make an effective closing argument, she'll have to whittle.
Hope: This is the word that comes to mind with Barack Obama after the debate, but only because it's always the one that comes to mind with him. Without looking back at my notes from Wednesday, there's no particular moment that screams out about his message the way it did with Clinton and Edwards. This doesn't mean he didn't have a fine afternoon, including a light-on-his feet riposte to Hillary Clinton. It may just mean that he answered the questions without always dragging them back to the main theme of his campaign.
Obama's campaign aides argue that he's the only candidate offering voters the change they want, but all the candidates claim that title, and all will deliver it one way or another. The way Obama delivers on his change pitch is not by offering to fight or sweat but to promise an inspirational force that he says will move Washington past the debates and squabbles that have locked up the city for the last 20 years. (If this sounds like New Age gobbledygook to you, it doesn't to Iowans.)
As for the other candidates, Dodd and Richardson turned in perhaps their best performances of the campaign, and Biden was strong as always. Everyone did well. It was a little like a T-ball tournament: minimal conflict, and afterward everyone deserves a prize.