COLUMBIA, S.C.—If Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., were the sole judge of this week's kickoff debate in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, he'd give a thumbs up to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph Biden and a bit of a thumbs down to Barack Obama.
Clyburn isn't the only judge, of course. One poll signaled a different initial verdict from voters in the state that hosted the debate and that will hold the first primary voting in the South next January. The poll suggested that voters found Obama very impressive—and better than Clinton.
But Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, is an outsized force in South Carolina politics and arguably the most influential Democrat in the state.
It was he who drew all the candidates to the state for the first debate, despite private concerns from several that they didn't want to start mixing it up with their rivals yet.
It's Clyburn whom all the candidates are courting for a coveted endorsement, which he may—or may not—give. "I hear from them all the time," he said Friday. And it's Clyburn who kept them all in the state an extra day to attend his annual fish fry Friday evening, despite their eagerness to jet to San Diego for California's state Democratic convention Saturday.
Clyburn told McClatchy Newspapers in an interview that he didn't think that the debate—held at South Carolina State University, his alma mater—fundamentally changed the race. But he lauded Clinton, a senator from New York, and Biden, a senator from Delaware, for their performances.
"Hillary Clinton did herself a lot of good," Clyburn said. "She looked crisp, in control."
Asked what specifically he liked, he said, "She stepped up to the plate ... she knocked it out of the park on the security issue."
He was referring to her response when she was asked how she'd respond to an al-Qaida attack on two American cities.
"A president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate," Clinton said. "If we are attacked, and we can determine who is behind that attack, and if there are nations that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond."
Obama, a senator from Illinois, said, "the first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans."
Clyburn said Obama "did not do as well as he could have" in the debate.
Clyburn said he sensed some discomfort in Obama at one point. "When he was asked about the three best allies, he seemed to get unnerved that he left out Israel," Clyburn said. "He recovered."
Obama appeared to hesitate when he was asked to name the United States' three closest allies, then listed the European Union, NATO and Japan. He added Israel after debate moderator Brian Williams prompted him.
One post-debate poll late Thursday suggested that Obama impressed voters more than he did Clyburn.
The survey of 403 debate watchers conducted for WCSC-TV in Charleston found 31 percent saying they thought Obama won the debate, followed by Clinton drawing the nod from 24 percent, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards with 14 percent, Biden with 6 percent, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson with 4 percent, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio with 3 percent, and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska each with 2 percent.
The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Clyburn was almost neutral on Edwards, who's considered the third candidate in the top tier of support with Clinton and Obama.
"I don't think he hurt himself," Clyburn said of Edwards. "The format was not good for him, with one-minute answers. He has laid out specifics on several issues. They're not given to short answers."
Clyburn said he was watching the second tier—the candidates with support still in the single digits in polls—for signs of movement.
He was most impressed by Biden, he said.
"Joe Biden did exceptionally well. He really nailed it with that one-word answer. It was so fitting to give a one-word answer."
He was referring to the point in the debate in which Williams noted Biden's propensity for talking too much and making gaffes, and asked whether Biden had the discipline needed for the world stage.
"Yes," Biden said, then stood there smiling without saying another word.
"To give a one-word answer was perfect," Clyburn said.
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