Tuesday, January 22, 2008

'The knives come out in South Carolina'

From Walter Shapiro at Salon.

Jan. 22, 2008 MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- In an inspiring tribute to the nonviolent legacy of Martin Luther King, whose holiday they honored, the three leading Democratic candidates talked calmly and dispassionately about their policy proposals Monday night in a two-hour CNN debate. Of course, there was also that seven-minute interlude when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama stood gesturing at each other angrily from behind their rival lecterns as they all but shouted at each other, "Your mother wears combat boots."

The final Democratic debate before Saturday's South Carolina primary was, in truth, about as ugly as you could get, given that the three candidates on the stage agreed with each other on 95 percent of the issues and have no long histories of personal animosity. The winner -- partly by default -- was John Edwards, who managed to stay above the fray except when he would suddenly swoop down to score a debating point against a surprised rival. The reason that Clinton and Obama allowed themselves the luxury of turning the evening into a "this time it's personal" face-off was that they no longer feared losing votes to the underfunded Edwards, already badly weakened by third-place finishes in New Hampshire and Nevada.

For those who crave the blood sport aspects of politics, it was a night to remember. Clinton demonstrated that she has the ability to pile one attack on top of another without pausing for breath. (Obama's purported sins ranged from having uttered a few complimentary sentences about Ronald Reagan last week to harboring a few small inconsistencies in his record of staunch opposition to the Iraq war.)

Finally, like a soda jerk adding the cherry atop an ice cream sundae, Clinton referred to the time when Obama was "practicing law and representing your contributor [Antoin] Rezko in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago." Rezko -- who is certain to become a familiar figure in Republican attack ads if Obama is the Democratic nominee -- raised more than $150,000 for Obama's political campaigns (some of the money was later donated to charity) and aided the Obamas in a 2005 real-estate transaction. Rezko was indicted in 2006 by the federal government on totally unrelated corruption charges and goes to trial next month.

But Obama demonstrated that (unlike turn-the-other-cheek insurgents like Bill Bradley in 2000) he could fight back. Referring to his years as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama said to Clinton, "While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart." Also in a telling reference to the tag-team attacks from Bill and Hillary Clinton, Obama snapped, "Well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes." . . .

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