Matthews: What I’ll be looking for at the debates


This Thursday, my colleague Brian Williams moderates the first Democratic presidential debate for 2008 at South Carolina State University.

I’m looking forward to the event because it will be the first opportunity for everyone, including me, to see a number of things:

How will Hillary Clinton, the only woman on stage, look in this line-up of men?  Will she radiate with charisma?   Will she debate with strength and modulation?  Will she be cool, persuasive and appealing?  Will she clearly stake out her position on the war in Iraq and on Mideast policy generally?  Will she stick her neck out in this first joint appearance or simply give it the minimum, playing not to lose?

Will Barack Obama engage head-to-head with Hillary?  Will he bring the debate to her, challenging her vote to authorize the war, questioning her proposal to keep a residual military force in Iraq, and demanding her position on any military action against Iran?

Will John Edwards, a native of South Carolina, show off the same platform skills he shows before crowds?  Will he demonstrate the maturity to match Hillary?  Will he prove himself the senior national leader to Obama?  Will he prove, as he did for us in the Hardball College Tour last year in North Carolina, that he is far more prepared for the presidency than he was in 2000? 

Will Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, or Bill Richardson (or all three) succeed in opening up the debate, in proving themselves in the same league with the frontrunners?  Will one of them throw a punch which forces one of the three leading candidates to respond?
Will Dennis Kucinich state a position in the war in Iraq that drives the other candidates to either join him or distance themselves from him?

Experience covering these events tells me that the most vital, most telling, most memorable moments come when one candidate responds directly to another.

There is nothing like seeing candidates react when standing on stage with each other.   There’s something different in the chemistry, in the air, and it matters to voters.  Think of Kennedy and Nixon in 1960.  Think of Bush and Gore in 2000.  Just having the two candidates stand together on the same stage changed the direction of both campaigns. 

It could do it again this Thursday.

Matthews: What I'll be looking for at the debates