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The Electable Lefty?

Did Edwards Win the Dartmouth Debate?

In the "spin room" after tonight's debate, Elizabeth Edwards suggested her husband offers Democrats a rare opportunity: the chance to nominate someone who is both the most progressive and the most electable candidate running. (At least among the plausible candidates.) It's an intriguing notion, one that would play well among the notoriously liberal and notoriously strategic-minded Democrats of Iowa. The only question is whether it's actually possible. That is, in moving aggressively to the left of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, does John Edwards invariably undercut the general-election appeal that almost won him the caucuses in 2004?

I think Edwards took a significant step toward answering that question tonight. He came out of the gate taking issue with what he described as Clinton's willingness to leave combat troops in Iraq for the indefinite future. And, in perhaps his best moment of the debate, he warned that Clinton's vote on a Joe Lieberman-sponsored Senate resolution targeting Iran's Revolutionary Guard represented a serious lapse in judgment.

But, despite his forcefulness, Edwards came off as controlled and reasonable. The Clinton campaign has taken to dismissing Edwards's increasingly strident attacks as acts of desperation. "Usually people have an aggressive attack strategy because they're falling rather than gaining" in the polls, was how Clinton strategist Mark Penn explained it during the post-game session. But there wasn't much trace of desperation in Edwards strikes tonight. On the Iran vote, for example, he didn't trash Hillary as a Lieberman-style war-monger. He acknowledged that the resolution was substantively limited, but suggested that even a limited measure was risky given the administration it would empower. "I voted for this war in Iraq," Edwards said. "Senator Clinton also voted for this war. We learned a very different lesson from that. ... [W]hat I learned in my vote on Iraq was you cannot give this president the authority and you can't even give him the first step in that authority because he cannot be trusted."

Edwards has a knack for coming off earnest and high-minded even when he's knee-capping an opponent. When Tim Russert mentioned his charge that Clinton's mismanagement of health-care reform in the '90s had left tens of millions of Americans uninsured, he seemed genuinely offended. "I didn't use the word 'mismanagement,'" he said. "I think Senator Clinton actually worked--as first lady at that time--very hard for health care." He then promptly explained why having a "bunch of Washington insiders who sit around tables together" to plot the fate of the health care system was a horrible idea.

Obama, by contrast, seemed as reluctant as Edwards was eager to emphasize differences with Clinton. Except for a single moment when he, too, chided her for the closed-door approach on health care reform, his criticisms of Clinton were as subtle and indirect as ever. His way of tweaking Clinton on the Iran resolution was to point out that Iran "is in a stronger position now than it was before the Iraq war because the Congress authorized the president to go in." Discussing a recent Israeli strike on suspected nuclear equipment in Syria, Obama noted that, "[W]e don't know exactly what happened with respect to Syria. We've gotten general reports, but ... [w]e got general reports in the run-up to the Iraq war that proved erroneous, and a lot of people voted for that war as a consequence."

At times Obama reminds you of the guy who calls out the name of the class bully from across the cafeteria, only to lose his nerve and mutter something harmless once the bully struts over and stares him in the face. At one point during a discussion of campaign finance reform, Obama riffed about the need for better disclosure among bundlers--the moneymen who package together contributions from dozens (sometimes hundreds) of individual donors. I assumed this was a shot at Clinton's ties to the fugitive bundler Norman Hsu. But maybe not. In any case, if the press has trouble making these connections, I'm not sure the average Iowan is ever going to get there.

Prior to the debate, the cable pundits were practically giddy with anticipation of a looming Obama offensive. Chris Matthews went on about how Obama needed to wag his finger at Clinton and indict her over the war, like a prosecutor in the Scott Turrow movie Presumed Innocent. Obama's performance tonight seemed like a direct response to these expectations. There was almost an element of defiance in his low-key performance, as though he were saying: "This is the strategy I'm going with, so lay off." His aides later underscored this impression. The rumor circulating among the press was that Obama's lack of energy might have had something to do with a head cold he'd come down with this week. But Obama guru David Axelrod was having none of it. "In this business, you play with injuries," he told a reporter.

At this point, the thinking in the Obama camp seems to rest on two assumptions. The first is that the press will do the work of deciphering his overly-subtle jabs at Clinton. The second is that Edwards, in moving aggressively to take on Clinton, will drive up his own negatives in addition to hers. But, after tonight, at least one of those assumptions may need revising. Edwards looks perfectly capable of firing shots without suffering much blowback. Elizabeth Edwards maybe onto something yet.