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August 29, 2014

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Democrats engage in substantive, tranquil and focused debate

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Sam Morris

Sen. Barack Obama , Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards acknowledge the audience before the start of Tuesday’s debate between the presidential candidates sponsored by MSNBC.

Outside Support

Some of the most interesting sights and sounds of the Democratic presidential debate didn't come from Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or Barack Obama on the inside of the Cashman Center. Instead the trio's supporters, along with a large legion of Dennis Kucinich backers, made their views, votes, and vocals known on the outside.

Audio Clip

  • David Bonior, John Edwards' national campaign manager, talks about Edwards' stance on immigration

Audio Clip

  • Sheila Leslie, Nevada assemblywoman, talks about Barack Obama's opinion on education for minorities

Audio Clip

  • Rodney Slater, Secretary of Transportation during Bill Clinton's administration, talks about Hillary Clinton's view on aiding minorities

Jon Ralston's analysis

2008 Caucus Coverage

Trying to restore amity to a contest that has seen precious little of it recently, the three leading Democratic presidential candidates used a nationally televised debate Tuesday night to emphasize their belief that America would be better served by sending any of them, not a Republican, to the White House next January.

During a two-hour debate at the Cashman Center aired on MSNBC, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards repeatedly praised each other, underlining what they see as the Democratic Party’s better answers to meet the challenges of what Obama described as “a defining moment in our history.”

Clinton set the tone in her opening remarks. “We’re all family in the Democratic Party,” the New York senator said. “We are so different from the Republicans on all of these issues in every way that affect the future of the people.”

In particular, the candidates went out of their way to douse the political brush fire that dominated the campaign in recent days after Clinton seemed to diminish the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in civil rights advances by noting that it took the actions of President Lyndon B. Johnson to make them a reality.

“Sen. Obama and I completely agree that … neither race nor gender should be a part of this campaign,” said Clinton, who went on to praise Obama as having “such an inspirational and profound story to tell America and the world.”

“I think it’s appropriate on Dr. King’s birthday … to recognize that all of us are here as a result of what he did.”

In the wake of Clinton’s comment, Obama’s campaign was accused of trying to keep the controversy alive. His South Carolina press secretary, for example, distributed alleged comments by Clinton supporters on racial issues. “Our supporters, our staff get overzealous,” the Illinois senator said, echoing Clinton’s earlier remarks. “They start saying things I would not say. And it is my responsibility to make sure that we’re setting a clear tone in our campaign.”

Edwards, meanwhile, fielded a question that goes to the core of his campaign — and that perhaps helps explain why he has been unable to crack one of the top two spots in the Democrats’ first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire — when asked about the difficulty of competing against the first viable female candidate and first viable African American candidate for president. “I think that the decision for every voter in this election should revolve around first whether you believe America needs change,” the former North Carolina senator said. “If you do, who do you believe will be most effective in bringing about that change?

“I have to say on behalf of my party .. I’m proud of the fact that we have a woman and an African American who are very, very serious candidates for the presidency. They’ve both asked not to be considered on their gender or their race. I respect that.”

The debate was not, however, an uninterrupted political lovefest, because the three candidates occasionally faulted each other’s policy positions and, at least obliquely, questioned their opponents’ readiness for the presidency.

Clinton pointedly refused to acknowledge that she considers both Obama and Edwards to be qualified to be president.

“I think that’s up to the voters to decide,” Clinton responded. Later, Clinton, trying to position herself as the candidate most ardently against the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, pointed out that one of Obama’s biggest financial supporters is the Exelon Corp., an energy company that favors Yucca, and that Edwards twice voted for Yucca while in the Senate.

Both Obama and Edwards responded with strong rebuttals.

“It’s a testimony to my commitment and opposition to Yucca Mountain that despite the fact that my state has more nuclear power plants than any other state in the country,I’ve never supported Yucca Mountain,” Obama said. And Edwards said that “science that has been revealed” and other factors since his two Senate votes have left him unalterably opposed to Yucca. Less than an hour before the debate, the Nevada Supreme Court kept the event a three-candidate affair, ruling that NBC/MSNBC had the right to exclude U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio from the debate after initially inviting him to participate. Kucinich ran far behind Clinton, Edwards and Obama in this month’s Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

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