Politicos rally to watch pres. debate

The first Democratic primary debate in an early election season left both Elis and New Haven Democrats energized and entertained, if not any more enlightened than before.

While the newly created Yale for Obama group held a debate-watching party attended by a few dozen people in the Branford TV room, the official Chris Dodd campaign held its own similarly-sized gathering on Crown Street, amidst the red, yellow and blue backdrop of local restaurant Nikkita. Organizers for both events said these “friendly gatherings” were important to maintain support for their respective candidates, although a number of attendees, especially at the Dodd gathering, said their commitment to a particular candidate was far from certain. And by the end of night, even many hardcore supporters of both Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Connecticut Sen. Dodd seemed to agree on at least one point: former Sen. Mike Gravel was by far the most entertaining candidate, though far from their top choice.

New Haven residents mingle at Nikkita and watch the Democratic presidental hopefuls in the first primary-season debate.
Jonathan Jimenez
New Haven residents mingle at Nikkita and watch the Democratic presidental hopefuls in the first primary-season debate.

Five minutes before the debate began, local aldermen, Democratic Town Committee members and members of the Greater New Haven Young Democrats perched themselves around the bar at Nikkita. The professed their convictions that Dodd would make the superior president, even as they hedged their support — unsure, they said, that Dodd could distinguish himself in such a large field with primaries coming so soon.

Keith Crane — better known by his blog name “CT Keith” — may have found himself at the wrong event. He admitted in hushed tones to actually being an Obama supporter. Obama, he said, is “playing it smart.”

“Edwards ran to the left, and Obama stayed in the center,” Crane said.

Edward Anderson ’91 concurred with Crane as he straightened his Red Sox cap, calling Obama the “Reagan of our generation.” People will vote for Obama, Anderson said, whether or not it happens to be in their self-interest.

As the debate began, the food arrived, and everyone scurried off for buffalo wings before returning to their seats.

Democratic Town Committee co-chair Susie Voigt — who had just returned from Hartford, where she debated the nomination process in last week’s Ward 22 special election — said she was backing Dodd, for now.

“I’m supporting Dodd as our hometown candidate,” Voigt said. “But it’s early, and I haven’t made a commitment.”

As Voigt left an hour later, she said she remained open-minded about the candidates. She liked New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Dodd, and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. And Voigt said she learned a thing or two about Gravel, who railed against any compromise short of an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and the criminalization of the conduct of President George W. Bush ’68.

Two bartenders seemed to have made the commitment to Dodd, though, as they proudly wore their Dodd campaign buttons while they served the debate-watchers.

Sitting at a nearby table, local Young Democrats member Shawn Logne said he doubted many Americans were watching the debate. It was only being shown on MSNBC, he said, and it was still very early in the campaign season. His fellow Democrats at Nikkita also seemed less than enthralled by the content of the debate; most attending said they learned little from the candidates, which they partially blamed on the debate’s format. The debate, hosted by newsman Brian Williams, encouraged short speeches rather than repartee.

Only when Dodd spoke did people hush down. Otherwise they mingled, clapping occasionally at well-spoken policies and laughing most often whenever Gravel opened his mouth. Many viewers sarcastically declared Gravel — who has essentially no support in the polls — the winner, congratulating him on making even Kucinich look conservative.

Young Democrats President Lou Mangini said the debate was really for the people of South Carolina, where it was held. But as long as a few people watched around the country, he said, the debate achieved a larger purpose.

“People will tell their neighbors, ‘This guy said this and this woman said that’ — it’s nice to say ‘woman,’ by the way — but still not enough people are watching,” Mangini said.

Members of Yale for Obama took the debate somewhat more seriously than the Nikkita crowd. They grimaced as Obama stumbled to answer how he would respond to a simultaneous attack on two cities by al-Qaida, and desperately shouted, “answer ‘my wife!’” when Edwards took more than a few seconds to find his “moral leader.” Edwards settled eventually on a trinity that included his Lord, his father — and his wife.

But undergraduate Obama supporters also found plenty of opportunity for amusement. Echoing their rivals at Nikkita, they jokingly suggested the group’s name be changed to “Yale for Obama and Gravel.”

Especially ludicrous, students said, was Gravel’s comment that “Osama bin Laden must be rolling in his blankets” and his question of “Who the hell are we going to nuke?”

Josh Haselkorn ’09 said he thought Edwards was winning the debate, but that Gravel was the crowd favorite.

More seriously, Adam Barth ’08 said Obama handled himself excellently in the debate.

“Especially on the question on partial birth abortion, his answer was not just a policy answer, but he explained where we need to take the debate in this country,” Barth said. “As he has shown before, he knows how to unite the country and take it forward.”

Crane summarized the lessons learned about the candidates from the night’s debate.

“They can all speak, they can all reason, and Yale graduates are idiots,” he said, contrasting the Democratic candidates — none of whom attended Yale as an undergraduate — with Bush.

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