January 22nd, 2008
04:25 PM ET
10 years ago

Blitzer: I disagree with debate critics

A shrinking field gave candidates more time to attack.

A shrinking field gave candidates more time to attack.

MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (CNN) - The Democratic presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has now come and gone. I must say I was pretty surprised: I knew there would be some fireworks, but I didn’t think it would become as rancorous as it did.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama came out swinging, and it was intense. They clearly had their zingers ready to go, and they let loose. It didn’t really matter what our questions were - whether on jobs, the economy, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, or health care - they were intent on hammering their rivals for the Democratic nomination.

This was the fourth presidential debate I have moderated during this election season. I hosted a Republican and Democratic debate back in June in New Hampshire, and a Democratic debate in November in Las Vegas. All three were much more subdued.

The shrinking field may be partly responsible for the new combative tone. When there are eight candidates fighting for time, it's tough for the candidates to go after each other. It's a lot easier when there are only three of them left standing.

Another factor: as the contest gets into the final rounds, the stakes become ever higher.

I made a deliberate decision last night to try to speak as little as possible. This was a debate, and I wanted the candidates to debate the issues, and let them go back and forth - much easier to do now that there are just three candidates left, as opposed to nearly three times as many.

During those early debates, some criticized me for interfering too much - either by interrupting the candidates and forcing them to wrap up their thoughts, or by moving on to the next question too quickly. “Why didn’t you just let them debate?” some of my critics asked. Following this most recent debate, some of my critics complained that I didn’t adequately control the two-hour session.

I certainly understand both criticisms. But I don’t agree with them.

As riveting as the back-and-forth might be, it wasn't the point of the event: I hope the people watching Monday night came away from this debate in South Carolina with a better understanding where the candidates stand on key issues.

–CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer

Filed under: Wolf Blitzer
soundoff (492 Responses)
  1. The Juice

    Obama started it? Give me a break. It's unfortunate that things ended up where they did but let's be clear on one thing: the Clinton machine started throwing the first punches long ago, and unfortunately Obama needed to start swinging back in order to set the record straight. His Walmart comment was way out of line, but how long do your expect anyone to tolerate this ridiculously engineered good cop-bad cop routine? It's nice and convenient that Bill has the good will capital to spend by constantly bashing and distorting Obama's record while Hillary just smiles warmly, but I for one have lost complete respect for them and will cross party lines and vote for McCain (if he is fortunate enough to win the Republican nomination) in the event that Obama does not come out on top.

    I am just so disgusted by how the Clintons have turned this important election into a big game more suitable for the American Idol crowd than a responsible electorate. But I guess that's how elections will always be won, regardless of how promising or optimistic the candidate. Senator Obama, please stay above the fray. I would rather you lose with the integrity to which we all were drawn when we started this process than stoop to the smirking, arrogant and smug tactics to which a family I formerly held in high regard has descended.

    January 22, 2008 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  2. Claude

    The sparring was largely off topic and petty, demonstrating that the candidates involved lack discipline and cannot be trusted with the office they are seeking.

    January 22, 2008 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  3. Rick

    I thought last nights debate was a real eye-opener. It made me switch from 'undecided'. I have just given my support and contribution to John Edwards. We need a mature President for a change, and he was able to stay above all the 'who lies the most' baloney!

    January 22, 2008 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  4. Sarah Bryan

    It was disgraceful that John Edwards was so often cheated out of time to speak. With the expectation that a candidate will have a "chance to respond" every time he or she is attacked, it's potentially a never-ending volley as long as there's a new charge leveled in each response. Blitzer should have drawn the line after Clinton's and Obama's second or third retailiatory response. Of course neither Clinton nor Obama would voluntarily stop the exchange - air time is air time, even if the context is unflattering. It was Blitzer's job to allow equal time to each candidate, and he did an astonishingly poor job at this.

    If CNN is going to take on the responsibility of hosting a debate, inevitably influencing hundreds of thousands of voters, it is CNN's responsibility to us to allow each candidate equal time. Not doing so is, in effect, an abuse of power.

    CNN may have decided that it's a two-person race (despite the results of the Iowa caucuses), but the third serious candidate has a right to be heard, and we have a right to hear him. If you want to focus on Clinton and Obama to the exclusion of Edwards, do it in a talk show or a news segment. Don't mislead us by cloaking it in the pretense of a debate. Better yet, just find a competent moderator for the next debate.

    January 22, 2008 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  5. Jean Vargas

    Wolf Blitzer:

    I would like to compliment you on the way the debate last night was handled. I thought you were right to ease up on all the rules/regulations. It seemed much more substantive to me than the recent MSNBC debate w/Brian Williams. I particularly loved the question about whether Bill Clinton was the first black president.

    January 22, 2008 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  6. Super Tuesday- can't wait. NJ for Hillary

    Why does CNN keep deleting my comments that are in favor of Senator Clinton?! This is not the first time they have kept me in "Awaiting Moderation" hell for a long time and eventually delete my comments.

    Here it goes again:

    I was a big supporter of Senator Clinton before the debate. However, after watching the entire debate last time I must say that I have changed. I am now a BIGGER and more of a solid supporter of the Senator from New York. She handled her own after Obama started the criticism. I agree with Hillary, it is clear that Obama was rehearsed and scripted because he said he didn't agree with Reagan and so on and Hillary corrected him by saying she did not say Reagan…hahah. Folks, look at that part of the debate again.

    If Obama doesn't have his rehearsed speeches and scripted then he is without his luster and coherence. Hillary has proven to have substance and strength! She is what the country needs. Senator Clinton is experienced and can challenge the republicans and win!

    I am an African-American male in my 20's and I support Sen.Clinton! Not every Black will vote for Obama!

    New Jersey for Hillary

    January 22, 2008 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  7. Joy Ford

    Hillary's attack dog made some comments that were patently false about Sen. Obama's record, was he not supposed to set the record straight. The fact that Hillary spent so much time over talking him only shows that she is not used to someone coming back after her and challenging her version of the truth.

    And Al in La Mesa, you claim you want a bi-racial election yet you can't wait for the elections to move to your area where you can place your votes based on what....a large hispanic population. Sen. Obama won in Iowa which I thought proved his appeal across the board so don't hide behind a psuedo argument when at the end of the day you and many others on this site know in your heart you would never vote for him under any circumstances. Which is why we always end up with the government we deserve.

    January 22, 2008 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  8. Art H

    I think during the entire debate, Hillary and Obama were at each others throats for the most part, while Edwards got to play the "good guy' role.

    I think the personal attacks truly started when Obama leveled the personal accusation against Clinton of being on the board of Walmart etc., implying in an underhanded way that she was associated with a super big box retailer who stomps on the little guy. Sure, prominent people are on the boards of a lot of firms. So what ? Even Michelle Obama was on the board of a major supplier of Walmart, till fairly recently. So what ?

    So Clinton obviously hit back at Obama, with the working in cahoots with a slumlord comment. I think she came across a bit angry when she made that comment, which in my opinion she should have tempered.

    January 22, 2008 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  9. kern 52

    Great debate. Very exciting. If you can't stand the heat, change the channel. I want to see how my candidate holds up under fire. And she did. All the beatings inflicted on Hillary by the republicans and their attack dogs since the early 1990s have molded her into an efficient, effective fighting machine. I was so inspired that I contributed to Hillary's campaign. Also for the critics of the Clinton's I recommend you read Bill's latest book on giving. Maybe you can learn to be more charitable instead of spewing venom. The Clintons have done a lot of work for the greater good.

    January 22, 2008 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  10. Patrick

    All the fight was well calculated. why did the moderator allow all to happen? I will never get over the thought that Hillary is consulted before the debates and being told what would happen. All what I am proud of is the far Obama has come.
    Thank you Obama!

    January 22, 2008 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  11. richie

    If Hillary is experienced enough, why pick fights?

    January 22, 2008 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  12. clc


    You did a good job in the debate last night. It was right to let them have some time to talk.

    January 22, 2008 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  13. Sharon

    Wolf, I am somewhat concerned about the ol'boy strategist you are speaking with regarding politics. I find his comments about Hilary Clinton somewhat sexist. I guess you have thrown "politically correct" out the window, is that right? At any rate get this replusive strategist off the air. He is obviously prejudice against women holding office and his comments add nothing of any significance.

    January 22, 2008 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  14. pat from Illinois

    Until last night, I was square in the Obama camp because I thought that he could hammer out a majority of the House and Senate that could put partisan politics aside and get something positive done. I do not believe Hillary can make it happen becasue of the baggage she carries over from the 90's. And, last night she showed that her viciousness will not win the hearts and mind of congress when the chips are down. But, sadly, so did Obama. Now where do I turn??
    Too Bad, I was hoping to see something great happen this year - not more of the same!!!

    January 22, 2008 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  15. Tony

    Best one so far. Let the sparks fly.

    January 22, 2008 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  16. Jason DeWitt

    Why do you fail to even MENTION John Edwards by name? You are causing this to become a two person race, and your coverage is pathetic.

    January 22, 2008 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  17. Independent Texan

    With the backing of his "brothers," Barack threw the first punch. Hillary had no choice but to respond forcefully by fighting fire with fire.

    It was a VERY GOOD debate. Despite Barack's homefield advantage, Hillary and John were the winners in this debate.

    I think the moderator failed miserably in controlling the crowd. Perhaps a lesson learn here for CNN: There should be NO APPLAUDINGS FROM ALL SIDES.

    January 22, 2008 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  18. vickey

    I feel Wolf did a great job. The "attacks" last night are nothing compared to the attacks the Republicians will bring on the democrat candidate. At least we are showing some backbone and send a message that the days of saying anything they want and getting away with it are over. As for Bill Clinton, I hope all three candidates are smart enough to use him when elected. We are blessed to have 3 great people, who are smart, hardworking and care about this country. I can live with either of them.

    January 22, 2008 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
  19. Ravi

    I think obama said "no one’s hands are clean”

    Clinton believe that her hands are clean and neat...That is a problem for America..

    Obama talked about unity..Clinton talked about defeating republicans...That is a problem for America

    January 22, 2008 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  20. paula hughes

    Wolf, I am a long time viewer and very devoted to CNN But last night was not a moderated debate!! You offered no leadership, it is your job to guide the debate and set the civil tone. Sorry but you gave into the entertainment and sensational rather than the professional. Sorry. Not a good day for journalisn.

    January 22, 2008 05:18 pm at 5:18 pm |
  21. Nash


    As an objective commentator on yesterday's Democratic Debate, Sen.Clinton was right about Sen. Obama's escaping to take responsibility for what his opinions are! He refuses to admit if he is mistaken on issues! While Sen.Clinton was couragous enough to admit she was mistaken on voting for the war then, Sen. Obama even denies his admiration of R.Regan is considered crossing the line in the Democratic Dictionery.
    He much reminds me of President Bush denial. The Stock exchange is crashing around the world due to the USA failing economy and Mr. Bush says everything is fine.

    Sen.Hilary Clinton is absolutly correct. Watch the actions compared to words!

    Toronto, Canada

    January 22, 2008 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  22. Tim O. Nowland

    Great theater ; we learned nothing! Debates should be modeled after the debates like we have in our law schools. Strict time limits, quotes exact, arguments following rules of logic all in a framework designed to ferret out the facts, the truth. It lifts your ratings and lowers the possibility of an informed electorate. Thanks Wolf.

    January 22, 2008 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  23. Earl Mardis

    I got alot out of thr first haf of the debate. The candiates discussed the issues. Of course the was bickering which I'm sure the media enjoyed.
    The scond half was devoted to the media's desires by asking questions in an attempt to turn the tide to a racial debate. This was uncalled for. You people critsize candidates when they call fault the media for bad publisity.
    I believe that the people that chose the questions for the 2nd half should go to work for the National Enquier and leave serious reporters to do the reporting that is meaninful to the American public.
    MSNBC tried the same thimg during the last debate However. the candidates didn't buy into it.

    January 22, 2008 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  24. John Galt

    This is the first debate that I've watched since the early race to the White House began, and it was entertaining to say the least. There's a long road until the elections, so I imagine that there will be a number of disastrous events that will entertain us with stories that couldn't have been written better by the writers sitting out on strike.

    January 22, 2008 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  25. pam Eugene OR

    Excellant job last night Wolf. You showed respect to all and let them finish their points. I thought Barack was was wonderful.

    January 22, 2008 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
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