A very bad day for Dick Gephardt. Even without Al Sharpton and Wesley Clark, yesterday's Democratic presidential debate in Iowa still felt too crowded.
Though Media Log was pleased that the bloviating Sharpton was MIA, Clark appears to be emerging as the consensus choice as Howard Dean's strongest challenger.
So you had the worst of both worlds: seven candidates, not much of an improvement over nine; and the most potentially interesting confrontation failing to take place.
For my money, then, the most interesting subplot in this lowered-stakes debate was John Edwards's absolute evisceration of Dick Gephardt. Gephardt, from neighboring Missouri, has to win the Iowa caucuses. Gephardt himself would surely tell you otherwise, but the plain truth is that if he can't win there, he can't win anywhere.
And Gephardt was having a pretty good day, appearing more animated than usual and seeming to get more face time than most of the other candidates.
But then he mistakenly said that all of his opponents had voted for NAFTA and for free trade with China except Dennis Kucinich.
"Can I respond first to what was just said?" interjected Edwards. "Because it was very skillfully done; he lumped everybody together."
Note the little trick Edwards pulls here: Gephardt not only wronged me, but did it in a way that shows he's a skilled politician.
According to the transcript, Edwards continued:
First of all, I didn't vote for NAFTA. I campaigned against NAFTA. NAFTA passed before I got to the Congress, to the United States Senate.
And I might add, you could pick out any one vote of anybody on this stage - you [Gephardt], for example, voted for fast-track authority for Bush I that led to the passage of NAFTA.
So the point is - and I don't believe you're not for American workers; I do. I absolutely believe that. But I think you could take any one vote from any candidate and distort it. And we ought to tell the truth about this.
This is first-rate political gamesmanship on Edwards's part.
First, he sets the record straight. Next, he points out that not all of Gephardt's votes have been in accord with his anti-NAFTA stance. Finally - and this is the best part - Edwards deconstructs the debate, explaining that plucking out single votes and beating people over the head with them is just wrong, y'all.
You can see how Edwards got to be a zillionaire as a trial lawyer. The wonder is that he hasn't done better in his presidential campaign.
Gephardt's response was as flat-footed as Edwards could have hoped for. Roll the transcript:
GEPHARDT: Well, John, you weren't in Congress when NAFTA came up, so you couldn't vote. But you voted for the China...
EDWARDS: But you just said I voted for it.
GEPHARDT: I understand.
EDWARDS: You understand?
EDWARDS: Does that mean you're wrong? You'll take it back now?
GEPHARDT: I'm quite willing to say that you weren't there and you didn't vote for it.
But you voted for the China agreement, and it's had a bad impact here in Iowa, and it's had a bad impact in your state of North Carolina.
Adam Nagourney reports in today's New York Times that Gephardt "appeared to redden a bit" during this exchange. The color on my TV set must be off, but I should think he would have.
Thanks to Edwards's deftness, it turned out to be a fairly good day for Dean, despite Joe Lieberman's effective attack on him for refusing to make public all of his records from his years as governor of Vermont.
Dean is in defensive mode, trying to protect a lead that, though substantial, may not be quite as big as it was a few weeks ago.
The Dean strategy: (1) eliminate Gephardt in Iowa; (2) eliminate John Kerry in New Hampshire; (3) try to withstand a post-New Hampshire surge from Clark or, less likely, from Lieberman.
Edwards certainly helped Dean with part one yesterday.