Yesterday, Drexel played host to the first Democratic debate in Philadelphia in over 30 years. Which is a feat because Drexel is not the biggest, not even the second biggest, of the major universities in the city. UPenn, Temple and Villanova would have felt outwitted, outsmarted. But let’s not focus on that too much.
The debate was an interesting case in point about how desperate the other challengers in a race can get when one of them is pulling ahead and away. Instead of focusing on what they had to offer, Senators John Edwards and Barack Obama used a good portion of their air time to slam Senator (and President-in-waiting?) Hillary Clinton on her position on Iran.
I’m no psephologist, but I have seen campaign races in India wherein if a person makes himself / herself the focus of the race, he / she often emerges victorious. Lalu Prasad Yadav, for example, became almost synonymous with Bihar. So much that even today one can’t think of Bihar without thinking about Laloo. So when the Opposition went out on election campaigns, they couldn’t talk of things without referring to him, thus indirectly campaigning for him.
Narendra Modi is another example of how a person converted a controversial issue into a persona issue to win elections in Gujarat. When most pundits had written his obituary for his mis-handling of Godhra, Modi swiftly made himself the focal point of the elections. His political positioning may not be morally right, but it has kept him in the Chief Minister’s chair for the past five years.
Closer home, Jayalalithaa used the same “everyone is against me” ploy to sway public sympathy in her favour in 2001, sweeping to power when no one expected her to win.
Of course, the focal point strategy is not a surefire method of achieving success. But the rule is “If a lot of people who are competing with you are saying something against you, then you are probably doing great.” Hillary’s position is enviable because it is not just her partymen who think she is surging ahead, but people from the other camp as well. She mentioned this herself in last night’s debate:
“If you watched their (Republican) debate last week, I seemed to be the topic of great conversation and consternation. And that’s for a reason, because I have stood against George Bush and his failed policies.”
Hillary Clinton’s 30-point lead over the rest of the field might be whittled down as America readies itself for the first round of primaries. Her poor performance last night in the face of a multi-pronged attack, where only Bill Richardson came to her defense (thereby increasing his chances of securing a ticket with her) can lead to a fall. But I don’t see it making a major impact if the main feature of Obama’s agenda (and those of others too) is just to concentrate on her. In politics, where negative publicity often works better, this strategy is only going to take her closer to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Update: After watching parts of the debate once again, it is hard not to concede that John Edwards should be adjudged the victor. Though he had lesser airtime than Obama and Clinton, he seemed the most confident, and if victory were to be measured in terms of how uncomfortable one made Clinton feel, Edwards trumps Obama hands down.
The focus now shifts to Vegas, where the next round of debate will see how Clinton answers some of the questions and doubts raised by her opponents. She has two weeks to prepare for the next round of onslaught. It will be interesting to see the next round of poll numbers. I expect Edwards to move closer to Obama, and Clinton to drop a few points.
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