Democratic Debate could be decisive

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will face off in Pennsylvania tomorrow night which promises to feature plenty of interesting responses from both candidates to questions that have arisen since their last debate in Ohio more than a month ago.

The event will mark the first time Senators Obama and Clinton have faced each other since February 26, their last debate in Ohio. That debate was before the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's comments were made public and before Mr. Obama referred to millions of working class and small town voters as "bitter."

While Mrs. Clinton's credibility has been marred since the last debate as well, she goes into it as the underdog and therefore has less to lose. This debate could garner the most viewers of any of the debates — there have been more than 20 during the past year — according to a Northeastern University associate professor and expert on presidential debates, Alan Schroeder.

Unlike most debates in this interminable election, which have been relegated to the backwaters of cable, tomorrow night's discussion will be on network television, ABC, during prime time. The timing and the circumstances make the debate difficult for Mr. Obama. Either of the ABC moderators, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, or Mrs. Clinton will have the opportunity to ask Mr. Obama about why the he has remained at his church and what exactly is it about bad economic times that cause some Americans to "cling" to religion.

The typical scenario for a front-running candidate like Mr. Obama is to sit back and run out the clock. Leaders in the polls don't like to debate — an unscripted comment or mistake could alter the dynamic in a successful race. Yet passivity in the face of criticism about not being able to connect with middle America poses a greater risk for Mr. Obama.
Hillary will no doubt get her own tough questions about her "misstatement" regarding her Bosnia visit and her claim about the Ohio pregnant woman dying as a result of no insurance.

But the focus will be on Obama. Expect both Gibson and Stephanopolous to treat Obama with kid gloves - no tough questions about Wright or his elitism. In fact, I expect them to ask questions that will set the ball on a tee for him to hit a home run. No reporter will want to confront Obama over Wright and they probably agree with his comments about rural America anyway. 

Rezko will not be mentioned nor his other problem associations - like being on a first name basis with terrorist William Ayers. In short, Obama will get something of a pass.

But Obama has shown himself to be inelegant in these forums. He's much better giving a prepared speech. There is a chance he will make a gaffe but it is not likely that it would have the impact of his dismissive remarks at the San Francisco fundraiser.

Hillary will feel constrained from becoming too aggressive because she doesn't want to be seen as a party wrecker. Nevertheless, she will get in a few licks on elitism. Her problem is that she largely believes the same thing as Obama - as do most Democrats - so she won't hit the subject too hard.

It should be the most interesting debate to date.