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Sweet column: A look at Obama prep for Thursday debate

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ORANGEBURG, S.C. -- On Tuesday, White House hopeful Barack Obama joked that he was going to be ''winging it,'' suggesting he was barely preparing for the first presidential debate of the 2008 primary season.

But he has been wedging practice and study sessions into his schedule for days to prepare for tonight's debate at the historically black South Carolina State University, where for the first time, the eight Democratic contenders -- the front-runners, second-tier figures and a virtual unknown -- will find themselves on a level playing field.


ORANGEBURG, S.C. -- On Tuesday, White House hopeful Barack Obama joked that he was going to be ''winging it,'' suggesting he was barely preparing for the first presidential debate of the 2008 primary season.

But he has been wedging practice and study sessions into his schedule for days to prepare for tonight's debate at the historically black South Carolina State University, where for the first time, the eight Democratic contenders -- the front-runners, second-tier figures and a virtual unknown -- will find themselves on a level playing field.

While famous for his oratory skills, Obama speaks in paragraphs, and that works against him in this format, where responses can last no longer than one minute. He has prepped at the Washington office of Bob Bauer, his campaign lawyer and held at least one other session. He expanded his tight inner circle for the debate to include issue experts plus kitchen-cabinet member Anita Dunn, a Democratic consultant, and Cook County Board member Forrest Claypool, a close friend of chief Obama strategist David Axelrod.

In recent days, Obama has rolled out major speeches on energy and foreign policy in the runup to tonight. And he's sending out a platoon of top staffers from Chicago -- Axelrod, campaign manager David Plouffe, spokesmen Robert Gibbs, Bill Burton, Jen Penski and Dan Pfeiffer -- to work the "spin" rooms with journalists before and after the 90-minute debate, to be broadcast live on MSNBC starting at 6 p.m. Chicago time.

That there is even a debate at this early stage of the primary campaign -- the first votes won't be cast until next January -- is a tribute to the clout of House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking African American in the House. And then there is the fact that the January South Carolina primary is potentially a make-or-break date on the road to the White House.

Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, both heavily courting the influential South Carolina black vote, will pay homage to Clyburn, whose endorsement they seek at his annual fish fry in Columbia on Friday night, even though it means they will have to sprint across the nation to arrive in San Diego on Saturday for the California State Democratic Party convention.

With so much attention focused on Obama, Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the debate is more important to lower-tiered contenders.

Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will have to make some big strategic decisions if they want to break out, including whether to attack Obama or Clinton in order to dramatically demonstrate some distinction.

"The lower-tier candidates can't be hitting singles. They have to hit the long ball," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a senior strategist for Edwards.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich's candidacy is a forum for him to gain attention for his strong anti-war views. Rounding out the field -- and don't feel guilty if you have never heard of him -- is former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.

Obama has less experience improvising under pressure than Clinton, who has been through the wringer; Edwards, seasoned veteran of a high-stakes debate with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004; Dodd, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, and Biden, a regular on the pressure-cooker Sunday talk-show circuit.

"This is just the beginning of a very long process and it is a learning process for voters," Edwards said, "and I have a responsibility, as do the other candidates, to make it very clear, not in rhetoric but in real terms, what it is we intend to do about the huge issues facing America."

There is buzz going around that President Clinton may show up on campus tonight to keep the spotlight on his wife.

Obama, as a front-runner, may decide to take no risks and just focus on keeping his answers short and clear. "I wish we had more than 60 seconds for each answer," he lamented.


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6 Comments

Candidates should say,regardless of whom the nominee is,here's what we should do on this issue.their ideas should be more important than their egos.

Here are my hiearchy of choices I am going to likely vote today for before I see tonight's debate:

Choice 1) Bill Richardson

Choice 2) Mike Gravel

Choice 3) Write in Candidate. (Al Gore)

If none of these candidates goes on any further then I would vote for the Republicans next:

Choice 1) Write in Candidate. (Jeb Bush)

Choice 2) Rudy Gulliani

Choice 3) McCaine

Hillary all the way!

She's the best of the bunch and tonight she will get a chance to prove that.

Sen.Obama all the way!!! And the democratic party most clean up it's act..

Obama Obama Obama. He has shown over the last 20 years a series of good and ethical choices in terms of his career. He did not opt for corporate law firm status, but instead to work organizing in low income neighborhoods - to do some good for the common man. He has shown great leadership and the ability to bring people together. And Michelle Obama would make the best first lady we've had in decades. Articulate, funny, principled, smart, and a modern working mother. I believe she would work wonders on behalf of working women. Obama may not have all the answers now, but I believe he has the character and intelligence to make good choices and decisions. Go Barack!

Hilary and Obama won this debate. What do you think? Join the conversation:

http://osi-speaks.blogspot.com/2007/04/on-national-scene-democratic.html#links

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on April 26, 2007 9:42 AM.

Sweet blog scoop: Clinton moves headquarters to Virginia surburb. was the previous entry in this blog.

Sweet blog extra: South Carolina Dem Debate looking to be fast, free flowing. is the next entry in this blog.

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