MSNBC commentators hyped presidential debate "fight night" as "last chance" for Dem candidates


On September 26, MSNBC correspondent Monica Novotny previewed the Democratic presidential debate airing that night on MSNBC by asserting: "For most of the candidates, it may present the last chance to try to make a dent in the lead enjoyed by the front-runner, [Sen.] Hillary Clinton [D-NY]." Slightly more than one month later, on October 30, MSNBC sponsored another Democratic debate, and various MSNBC commentators similarly cast the event as the "last chance" for several or all of the other candidates "to make the case that they are better than Senator Hillary Clinton."

But the October 30 debate was not the candidates' "last chance" to make their "case"; rather, it may have been their final opportunity to do so in a debate on MSNBC. While this was the last debate sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to air on MSNBC, two additional DNC-sanctioned debates are scheduled for November 15 (sponsored by CNN) and December 10 (sponsored by CBS).

From the 4 p.m. ET hour of the September 26 edition of MSNBC Live:

NOVOTNY: The Democratic presidential candidates have descended on tiny Hanover, New Hampshire, to prep for tonight's debate at Dartmouth College. For most of the candidates, it may present the last chance to try to make a dent in the lead enjoyed by the front-runner, Hillary Clinton. In this new poll from the University of New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton is the choice for 43 percent of Democrats polled; Barack Obama trails with 20 percent; John Edwards with 12, Bill Richardson with 6 percent. Chuck Todd is NBC News political director. He joins me now, live from Hanover, New Hampshire. Chuck, you're gearing up, too, I bet.

TODD: Absolutely. You can really start to feel sort of the festive atmosphere here. We're on the quad in Dartmouth. You got the -- all the campaigns have volunteers screaming and yelling cheers already, so -- I mean, we're still five hours away.

NOVOTNY: So, what do John Edwards and Barack Obama need to do tonight if they want to -- I guess, you know, everyone's been saying, "What do they need to do to close the gap?" But they certainly can't close it in one night, I suspect, but if they just want to begin to close that gap -- take the first steps -- what do they need to do?

TODD: Well, they need to figure out how to trip Hillary Clinton up a little bit.

From the noon ET hour of the October 30 edition of MSNBC Live:

CHRIS JANSING (host): How much patience can any of these candidates have at this point? I mean, we're going to be getting into the Thanksgiving and Christmas season, when arguably people are going to have other things to think about than this campaign. And then, before you know it, it's going to be Iowa. So, I mean, are we really at a stage here where you gotta make your move?

TODD: Here's the thing: We don't know. I mean, we are in uncharted territory. I think, yes, it's true, Iowans wait for the last couple of weeks, but we don't know when the last couple of weeks are, really. Yes, we know January 3, but, look, we're all normal people -- we think. The holidays are usually the last two weeks of December, feeding into January, so it could be that they've tuned out politics for those two weeks, so, instead, it's the first two weeks of December.

It could be that, you know, if where things stand in this race on December 15 is where things stand on January 3, and so, I think a lot of the campaigns are trying to figure this out. I think that's why a lot of folks in the Obama camp think this debate may end up being more decisive, for instance, than the debate next month, because the debate next month comes just before Thanksgiving, people get distracted, they're not sure if they're going to be paying a lot of attention. This is the one that if you want to change the dynamics of the race -- and clearly Obama would like to do that -- you gotta do it now, 'cause there may not be another chance.


JANSING: And John, what are you expecting tonight? Is it all about Hillary?

JOHN FUND (Wall Street Journal columnist): It's all about Obama, because he's raised the expectations. So far, he has not been punching at or above his weight class. And now, the question will be -- since Hillary Clinton is the front-runner -- how is he going to convince Democrats that Hillary is not the right choice, because if the election were held today, Hillary would be the presumptive nominee.

From the 5 p.m. ET hour of the October 30 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

[On-screen text: "The Fight In Philly"]

NORAH O'DONNELL (MSNBC chief Washington correspondent): We have 65 days until the Iowa caucuses. New Hampshire is going to follow several days thereafter. This might be the last best chance that Senator Barack Obama or Senator John Edwards have to make the case that they are better than Senator Hillary Clinton. The last poll showed her about 30 points ahead nationally. Senator Obama has indicated that he plans to step up his criticism tonight, although his advisers are saying it's not going to be a steel-cage death match, that everyone in Washington has blood lust, but that that's not going to happen.

MATTHEWS: No, we just want a debate, that's all. All I want is a debate. I want it to be clear at the end of the night where each candidate stands, so that someone can pick a nominee with some intelligence.


MATTHEWS: Let me go to Jonathan [Capehart, Washington Post editorial writer]. I will just suggest -- not that I'm in their training corner -- but if I were the corner man tonight with a bucket and a towel over my shoulder, I might say to one of the guys who really would like to be the Democratic nominee, "Tonight's your night, kid."

CAPEHART: Well, you know, Chris, this whole setup -- I've been watching Super Tuesday all day, and I keep thinking about the scene from the movie Bring It On where the two feuding cheerleading squads are facing each other, and one of them says, "When you go to nationals, you better bring it." And I think what we're seeing --


CAPEHART: -- now is that, you know, Barack Obama has to bring it. If he doesn't bring it -- well, I think there's a joke, you know, if you don't bring it, it's already been broughten, but it doesn't -- the joke misses, but he's got to --

MATTHEWS: No, no, we got it, I think. At least the younger people here got everything. I watch older movies. But go ahead.

CAPEHART: But Barack Obama really has to meet expectations. The expectations are really, really high.

O'DONNELL: Yeah, Jonathan, you're brilliant.

MATTHEWS: "Jonathan, you're brilliant." Well, that's -- we can put that in the --

O'DONNELL: The thing is, Chris, I think it is a little bit unfair to say that Senator Obama and certainly Senator Edwards have not been drawing contrasts. They have been drawing contrasts on the campaign trail. But I think what people want to see tonight in the debate and they want to see from Barack Obama and why they have this blood lust, if you will, is they want to see passion from him. And that's what people feel is missing.


MATTHEWS: OK, let's talk about this state of Pennsylvania. First of all, Jonathan, your thoughts first on this: Is this state in play? Can Pennsylvania be picked up by the Republicans if [Rudy] Giuliani is at the head of the ticket?

CAPEHART: Well, I was going to say, it depends on who the Republican is.

MATTHEWS: Poached.

CAPEHART: And if the Republican is Mayor Giuliani, then I think actually it is in play.

MATTHEWS: What do you think?

O'DONNELL: Well, Philadelphia is the purplest of the purplest states [sic], I guess, and certainly Giuliani would have a real shot in this state.

MATTHEWS: You know why? It's ethnic. It's gritty. It's suburban, the state. And it has a real attitude about crime and big-city stuff, and it's kind of sort of a Broad Street Bully attitude, if you've ever watched the Philly fans at work. You know?

[crowd cheers]

JULIE MASON (Houston Chronicle White House correspondent): Your people out here.

MATTHEWS: I mean, you're looking -- you're listening -- this is a little bit gritty out here, right here. It's the Roman Colosseum, and they ain't rooting for the Christians, either.

We'll be right back with the roundtable. You're watching Hardball live from Philadelphia, only on MSNBC.


MATTHEWS: We're back with the roundtable. I want to go to Jonathan first, and then to Julie, then to Norah, in order. I want you all to tell me what to look for tonight, in addition to what looks to be the possible mix-up between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, perhaps John Edwards.

Jonathan, let's give the other fellows a chance here, the other candidates: [Joe] Biden, Richardson, [Chris] Dodd, et cetera. What are we expecting to hear from them? They're still in this fight, as far as they're concerned. They've got their spouses out. Jill Biden's out there in Iowa. Jackie Clegg, the wife of Chris Dodd -- they're living full time in Iowa. They're trying to win this thing. What do they have to do to get in this race?

CAPEHART: Well, I think as -- I think Norah was saying this either on this show or earlier in the day -- this is the last chance that Barack Obama and John Edwards have to distinguish themselves, and I think actually that's the case for everybody in the debate tonight. That's all I have to say on that.

From the October 30 edition of MSNBC's Tucker:

TODD: Look, I think Dodd and Biden know that, number one, this is their last shot at the brass ring. Yes, early on, they seemed to look like they were running to be vice president and secretary of state in the Clinton -- next Clinton administration. I think they are going to get aggressive on her.

From the 7 p.m. ET hour of the October 30 Hardball:

MATTHEWS: Good evening. The fight in Philly. I'm Chris Matthews. Welcome to Hardball, from Drexel University in Philadelphia. At 9 p.m. tonight, just two hours from now, Democratic presidential contenders will gather in a debate moderated by NBC's Brian Williams, joined by Tim Russert [NBC News Washington bureau chief and host of NBC's Meet the Press].

Expectations are running high for challenger Barack Obama. Will he come out swinging against Hillary? Will John Edwards get into the mix? Could this battle turn into a brawl with Hillary walking away unscathed, and maybe even stronger?


MATTHEWS: We begin with our roundtable, however: NBC's Andrea Mitchell; Dan Balz of The Washington Post, and Newsweek magazine's Howard Fineman. Let me start with Andrea, my colleague.

OK, it's fight night. OK, no cigars here, no smoking on the set. But --

MITCHELL: There may be some cigars. You don't know that.

MATTHEWS: But this is Philly, as you and I know. Andrea and I first crossed our paths, I think, many years ago when you were at KYW radio here. The Philly fans want blood, they want the Roman Colosseum. Will they get it tonight?

MITCHELL: They very well may. But -- and if they don't, Barack Obama is going to have real problem because he has raised expectations for himself. He's gone out there, he and his people saying that he is going to step up his attack on Hillary Clinton. And if he now doesn't, there's going to be a lot of disappointment.

MATTHEWS: Is this his last chance?

MITCHELL: It's not his last chance, but it is a very important chance. He has really got to show himself.

MATTHEWS: Dan Balz, same question to you. Lots of touting of the fight tonight, lots of Don King pregame excitement. Will we get it?

BALZ: I think we'll get some of it, Chris. But I'm struck by something that David Axelrod said to me some weeks ago with his --

MATTHEWS: Who's with Obama.

BALZ: He's Obama's chief strategist. He said to me, a lot of people in the media would like to see a steel-cage match between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and that's simply not the way Barack Obama plays the game.

MATTHEWS: Howard --

BALZ: I think Obama's in a difficult position, obviously, because he has had expectations raised on himself. He contributed to that with an interview in The New York Times over the weekend. A lot of people are anticipating that they will see a newly aggressive -- I think he's going to try to draw some sharp distinctions, but I think he wants to do it in his own way, and that's going to be tricky.

MATTHEWS: Howard, I guess one reason why people expect him to draw blood, as Dan suggested -- that's the language some people are using -- is because he's falling so far behind. One of the national polls has Hillary up to 50 percent now against the field. The L.A. Times poll has 31 points separating Hillary Clinton from Barack Obama. Everybody figures that's when you have to do something.


MATTHEWS: And the worst thing that could happen to Hillary Clinton is to win all of the marbles in January and have to spend 11 months defending herself against the 527s, against the Swift Boaters, the whole shebang for 11 months.

MITCHELL: That is what Bill Clinton would call a "high-class problem."

MATTHEWS: Well, he may have one on his hands, and he may have to have fantastic -- she's going to have to wear a face mask. Anyway, Howard Fineman, Andrea Mitchell, Dan Balz -- it's great having the heavyweights on.

Is tonight the night that Barack Obama comes out swinging? We keep asking that question. You're going to have to know the answer yourself when we watch. We'll all be watching tonight live from Philadelphia the big debate tonight. It's only on MSNBC.


[On-screen text: "The Fight In Philly"]

DAVID SHUSTER (MSNBC correspondent): The debate tonight is in the city of the Broad Street Bullies and the ferocious Eagles fans. It's also a city that gave the nation Rocky Balboa, the greatest underdog story in popular American culture.

Tonight, just 65 days before the voting begins in 2008, this debate has become a heavyweight prize fight with the Democratic nomination possibly on the line. Will Hillary be stopped? Can she fend off the blows and pivot back, knocking out Obama and Edwards and burying them for good? All eyes are now focused on Philadelphia. I'm David Shuster for Hardball.

[end video clip]

MATTHEWS: All right, it's David Shuster. Up next: So will Barack Obama get some hits in tonight on Hillary Clinton, or is it too late to slow her down? We'll check the latest polls and preview tonight's fight in Philly, as we said. You're watching Hardball, live from Drexel University, the site of tonight's debate in Philadelphia, only on MSNBC.


MATTHEWS: Well, we're pregaming this baby. Welcome back to Hardball. It's about 90 minutes away right now from the Democratic presidential debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Let's go right now to the polls now with NBC News political director Chuck Todd and Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker magazine.

I'm looking at the polls right now. It shows that in this state, Hillary's doing quite well. She's way ahead of Obama. It's probably typical of the situation around the country. Everyone that's been on in this show tonight, both our 5 o'clock edition and now, says basically to expect a fight tonight. Do you?

TODD: You have to. I mean, when you actually look at the calendar, if you don't make the move now to go after her and to try to create the contrast, when are you going to do it? Thanksgiving is coming up, January 3rd is 65 days away.

MATTHEWS: We got Halloween tomorrow, then Thanksgiving, and then holidays.

TODD: Hey, literally, you don't have time. You have -- we're in the last three --

MATTHEWS: How many shopping days --

TODD: -- weeks.

MATTHEWS: -- for a politician till Iowa, really, if you think about it?

TODD: I would argue that you're literally -- it's almost a virtual month. It's a virtual 30 days. We may be 65 days, but when you start pulling away all the -- Thanksgiving weekend, you pull away Christmas week, and you pull away that -- sort of that other December part of the Christmas shopping week, you suddenly get closer to 30, 35 days until you get to Iowa, not 65 days as the calendar says.

MATTHEWS: What a strange calendar. Ryan, what crazy person is going to -- now, we're picking the leader of the world in the middle of all of this crazy Halloween, crazy Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, of course, New Year's, and then on two days after New Year's, when people are barely sober again, we're picking the president.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to Philadelphia, live in Philadelphia right now for the Democrats' big fight tonight at 9 Eastern. We're on the edge of that right now, a crucial debate. Everybody thinks Barack Obama has got to take Hillary Clinton's head off. It may well be John Edwards who does that work. It's going to be a tough fight tonight. It could be some of the best fighting we've seen in American politics. And what a fitting city in which to have that happen.


MATTHEWS: I think this crowd here is so different. Philly!


CROWD [chanting]: Hardball! Hardball! Hardball!

BRIAN TIERNEY (publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News): Just throw them a little sausage out there.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH (Philadelphia radio host): A little chum in the water for the sharks.

MATTHEWS: It's like Lawrence of Arabia out here. You know, this is like -- it is so tribal. We'll be right back. This is a unique city. We'll be back with Michael Smerconish and Brian Tierney as we talk about Philly. You're watching Hardball, only on MSNBC.

Chris Matthews, Norah O'Donnell, Chris Jansing, Andrea Mitchell, John Fund, Dan Balz, David Shuster
2008 Elections
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