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PHILADELPHIA — One Hollywood type played a part in Tuesday night’s presidential debate. And it wasn’t Fred Thompson.
Shirley MacLaine was channeled by debate co-moderator Tim Russert when questioning Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. Russert asked if, as MacLaine claims in her new book “Sage-ing While Age-ing,” Kucinich saw a “triangular craft, silent and hovering” at her home in Graham, Wash.
“It was an unidentified flying object, OK?” Kucinich said in a way that looks a lot more testy in print than it did live. “It’s, like, it’s unidentified. I saw something.”
Such is the lot of Kucinich, who is making his second run at the nomination but is making no headway. He was at the bottom of the polls among the seven presidential candidates who were invited to appear at Tuesday night’s MSNBC debate, held at Drexel University. Kucinich squeaked by — barely — under newly imposed NBC rules that barred fellow fringer Mike Gravel from participating. Gravel was a block away at a self-styled “anti-debate.” Kucinich, an Ohio congressman and former mayor of Cleveland, had to wait nearly 22 minutes before getting a question in the two-hour debate. But at least he was onstage.
UFOs were the least of the candidates’ worries Tuesday. Matching the host city’s reputation for being somewhat rough and tumble, Tuesday night’s debate was lively and more combative. Maybe it was Barack Obama’s declaration in the New York Times that he would take the gloves off against front-runner Hillary Clinton. Or maybe it was the setting, which at times was fit more for the old Veteran’s Stadium instead of a storied university like Drexel.
Much had been made about Obama’s willingness to go after Clinton, and he didn’t disappoint. He got out of the gate all but calling the front-runner a flip-flopper on NAFTA, torture and the Iraq War. Other candidates added other chidings through the night, including her vote to call the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, whether to bring all combat troops home from Iraq and, closer to home, Social Security.
Clinton entered the debate as the front-runner and if polls show that didn’t change, it wasn’t for her rivals’ lack of trying. Their biggest chance happened near the end, when Clinton seemed to back a controversial plan by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to issue drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. When she appeared to support Spitzer’s moves and then back away from them, the other candidates pounced.
“Wait a minute,” Chris Dodd said. “You said, you said yes.”
While Clinton kept saying no, one of Clinton’s more strident rivals — who kept up the ethics and integrity issue against her all night — got ready. The smile on former Sen. John Edwards’ face vanished, as he reached back for the skills that made him such a successful trial lawyer.
“Unless I missed something, Sen. Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago,” Edwards said. Added Obama: “I can’t tell if she’s for it or against it.”
Earlier in the evening, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who polls slightly ahead of Kucinich, waited almost as long as the latter for a question to be lobbed his way. The former U.N. ambassador waved his outstretched hands after the early questions went to Clinton and others. But it was Richardson who came to Clinton’s defense.
“You know what I’m hearing here? I’m hearing this holier than thou attitude toward Sen. Clinton that’s bothering me because it’s pretty close to personal attacks we don’t need,” Richardson said. But comments from Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., brought one of the night’s more memorable lines when he said it was ironic that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani already was campaigning against the Democrats.
“There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: A noun and a verb and 9/11. I mean, there’s nothing else,” Biden said amid laughter throughout the hall.
In the spin room set up across the street and next to the press filing room, there was at least one common thread: No one agreed on how it went.
“It was a good exchange,” 2004 candidate and now Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean told The Hollywood Reporter after the debate. “I thought it was entertaining and I thought it was funny, which is important.” But asked by other reporters what he thought of exchanges between Clinton and the other candidates, Dean demurred. He said “I stay out of that” at least twice in the course of a minute.
Kucinich was besieged by questions about the UFO sighting that occurred, he said after the debate, more than a quarter-century ago. But he declined to provide further details.
“It’s interesting that some people are hyperventilating about this,” Kucinich said unapologetically. “It really says more about them then it does about me.” He added that MacLaine was a “dear friend (but) if I was writing a book, I might give a slightly different account.”
Speaking with the Reporter while fielding way too many questions about UFOs, Kucinich shrugged off questions about his role in the debate.
“Whenever I’m called on, I give the best answer I can give. That’s all. I’m ready,” Kucinich said in a manner that was a lot sharper than it seems in print. “If they give me a half a minute, I’m ready. If they give me a minute, I’m ready. I can name that tune in three notes. I’m ready.”
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