Surrogate debate falls back on issues

October 26, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Not-Barack Obama got hooted for attacking hardly-Hillary Clinton. Faux-Joe Biden kept dissing pretend-Bill Richardson, while pseudo-Dennis Kucinich just about begged to be deemed important enough to catch some flak himself.

Un-John Edwards was there, too, wearing pearls.

You take what you can get for presidential campaigning here in Maryland. As one of the many states that fall into the category of neither-Iowa-nor-New-Hampshire and not-even-South-Carolina, it gets little attention from candidates focused on the early primaries that tend to narrow the field or even pick the nominee before Marylanders head to the polls.

So when the District 30 Democratic Club held a presidential debate Wednesday night, it was for surrogates sent by the candidates rather than the candidates themselves.

Still, a surprisingly full house -- about 120 people -- crowded into an Annapolis church for the debate anyway. Maybe it was simply the fact that it was a rainy night with nothing much on TV but a World Series featuring not-the-Cubs versus not-the-Yankees. Or perhaps it was Iowa envy, that every-four-years bug that strikes political junkies desperate for any piece of the primary action, even an ersatz one. Maybe they thought they would see comic impersonators -- Amy Poehler as Clinton, Horatio Sanz as Richardson, Fred Armisen as Kucinich -- rather than serious surrogates.

In any event, Wednesday's debate did feature a few prominent local officials -- Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown channeled Clinton, Attorney General Doug Gansler represented Obama, and state Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County stood in for Richardson -- who are more accustomed to speaking for themselves but managed to suppress their egos for a couple of hours.

"I told Senator Obama when I last saw him that I was going to have to portray him in a number of forums and that he's a far, far better Barack Obama than I am," Gansler said after the debate.

Maybe so -- in a straw poll taken after the debate, Obama, who usually comes in second to Clinton, came in last. (Second to last, actually, if you count the two votes for Al Gore, who isn't running and didn't have a stand-in.)

Still, he got in some spirited jabs, saying the U.S. didn't need to perpetuate the Bush-Clinton dynasties at the White House and needling Clinton for her failed attempt, as first lady, at reforming the health care system.

Brown-cum-Clinton responded with mock, eye-widened shock. I was kind of hoping for the now-famous Clinton Cackle, that big, braying laugh that she lets loose in response to questions or statements that she finds beyond seriousness, or beneath her, or maybe just plain funny (the pundits who have spent a lot of time dissecting this disagree). Brown, though, adapting easily to a front-runner's position, went with a got-the-scars, learned-from-the-experience route.

While calling the experience of being a surrogate "awkward," Brown said Clinton's goals for the country paralleled what he and Gov. Martin O'Malley envisioned for the state.

The other surrogates were Kate Michelman, former president of the abortion rights group NARAL, for Edwards; Luis Navarro, Biden's campaign manager; and Vin Gopal, Kucinich's national field director.

It seemed to be mostly a Clinton crowd, or at least they were the ones organized enough to wear their hats and shirts and bring their signs. She won the straw poll, but getting 16 of the 65 votes cast probably gives her even fewer bragging rights than her Republican counterpart, Ron Paul, who came out on top of a GOP straw poll at the Maryland State Fair in which 962 people voted.

Richardson came in second with 14 votes -- 14.5 if you count the person who split one vote between Kucinich and him -- surprising even his surrogate Zirkin, who said that with the Maryland General Assembly's special session starting next week, he naturally is more focused on state rather than national issues. He took "absolutely no credit" for the New Mexico governor's placing so high.

Without the actual candidates, most of the debate hewed largely to the issues -- the bulk of the questions forwarded to moderator Lou Davis of Maryland Public Radio from the audience were about Iraq, followed by health care and global warming. Who won and who lost wasn't as much an issue. For one thing, there wasn't a post-event spin room where pundits could rule on who won and who lost.

Which, more than three months before Maryland's Feb. 12 primary and more than a year before the general presidential election, is how it should be.


Find Jean Marbella's column archive at

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