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Al Sharpton steals the show at the CNBC-WSJ debate

BY ADAM REILLY

Thank God for Al Sharpton. Without the Reverend, Thursday's Democratic presidential debate would have been a ho-hum affair notable mostly for newcomer Wesley Clark's underwhelming performance. But Sharpton, who led with a gentle put-down of Clark that doubled as a harsher diss of some others on stage --"Don't be defensive about just joining the party...It's better to be a new Democrat that's a real Democrat than a lot of old Democrats up here that have been acting like Republicans all along"--started strong and never let up. Whether he was mocking other candidates' repeated paeans to Bill Clinton ("Within the next hour we'll say that Bill Clinton walked on water!") or soothing Howard Dean after a testy exchange with Dick Gephardt ("Don't give George Bush the night by getting too personal, Brother Howard") or citing slavery as a cautionary example for those who uncritically venerate free trade ("African-Americans are here on a bad trade policy...just because it's trade doesn't mean that it is good and it is something that we should support," Sharpton showed it's possible to be substantive and entertaining for a two-hour stretch. True, the Reverend benefited from some extenuating circumstances: Thursday's debate, which was co-sponsored by CNBC and the Wall Street Journal in New York City, was held on Sharpton's home turf. And as one of three candidates generally regarded as having no shot at the nomination, Sharpton can afford to be loose. Still, some of the designated Democratic front-runners could stand to take a page from Sharpton's book.

Like, say, Wesley Clark. Nothing catastrophic happened to the General in his first debate. But he didn't dazzle, either. Clark spent much of the evening looking like he was suppressing a smile; on one or two occasions, seemingly when Clark managed to successfully deliver a scripted line, he broke into a full-fledged grin. Most of his answers were vague and cautious: viewers learned that Clark wants to investigate a lot of different issues, but they also discovered that he has few fully formed ideas. Clark made a point of noting that he's been in the race for just over a week. It's a bad excuse, and somewhat disingenuous -- Clark has been mulling a run for months, and has had ample time to formulate some clear policy positions. He'd better do it soon.

Sharpton's tour-de-force performance and Clark's inauspicious debut weren't the only storylines to come out of New York. Judging from a couple of self-pitying remarks by Howard Dean, the Vermont governor is developing a bit of a martyr complex. After Gephardt accused Dean of failing to stand by Medicare when it was jeopardized by Newt Gingrich et al., Dean went ballistic. His impassioned insistence that Gephardt was misrepresenting his views wasn't the problem; that kind of feistiness -- if it's kept under control -- could serve Dean well if he garners the nomination. But Dean couldn't keep it under control. "I'm ashamed that you would compare me with Newt Gingrich," Dean shot back. "I've done more for health insurance, Dick Gephardt, frankly, than you ever have." Dr. Dean, this may be a surprise, but these guys want to be president just as much as you do. They're not going to roll over and die just because you topped a few polls and landed on a few magazine covers.

Finally, a few closing observations:

Gephardt saved his vitriol for Dean, but his pointed criticism of Kerry for opposing a rollback of middle-class tax cuts suggests the Missouri congressman views both men as his primary competition. Kerry, on the other hand, seems mostly concerned with Dean; he belittled the governor's budget-balancing achievements in Vermont, but laughed off Gephardt's tax broadside.

Gephardt, who's challenging Joe Lieberman for the title of Most Likely to Reference Bill Clinton, has also developed the most complex system of hand gestures of any candidate. That said, it would behoove him to use them a bit more sparingly.

If Bob Graham's going to keep holding up that copy of Opportunity for All, the economic plan he referenced a couple times Thursday evening, he needs a splashier cover. Some flag imagery, perhaps?

 


Issue Date: September 26, 2003
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