Diablo Dems listen to prez candidates

It’s 6:16 p.m. and more than a dozen Democrats (numbers grow every few minutes as folks get off work and make their way to the restaurant) are gathering around the television in the back room of A.J.’s Pub in Concord eating nachos, having a beer or a soda and listening to the presidential candidates on MSNBC from Philadelphia.

So far, it’s a pretty quiet crowd as the questions center around the Iraq War and Iran in the early minutes. A number of folks in the room have “Obama” buttons but there’s no obvious interest in any one of the candidates just yet.

I’ll come back later on and describe their reactions to the debate, who they thought won and who they thought had the best lines.

6:45 p.m.
Wow, it seems as though the Democratic candidates are all running against New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, agreed Democrats Sally Sweetser and Marie McDonald. They are referring to the very critical language from sens. Barack Obama and John Edwards about Clinton, particularly her vote to reconfigure troops in Iraq with an eye toward stemming involvement from Iran.

“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” Sweetser said. “It seems as though most of the candidates are setting up Hillary to be the nominee.”

Both women liked all the candidates’ anti-war rhetoric, though.

“I’m really glad to hear all of them be so definitive about being against the war,” said McDonald, who supports Edwards.

7:15 p.m.
During the second break, the first reaction that comes to the mind of Ellis Goldberg of Danville is:”I’m concerned that Democrats are circling the firing squads.”

He’s talking about the ongoing anti-Clinton theme of this debate. But he agrees with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who said that Clinton has a serious electability problem in the general election.

“I think a lot of people are concerned about being left voting for the lesser of two evils,” Goldberg said.

He blames cynicism among voters who may philosophically side with a particular candidate but view the die as cast for a front-runner with an air of inevitability.

“The only candidate to get any applause during this debate so far has been (Ohio Rep. Dennis) Kucinich but no one will vote for him because no one thinks he can win,” Goldberg said.

The best line so far?

That came from Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Goldberg said.

Biden called GOP candidate and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani the “most unqualified candidate to run since (President) George W. Bush … He only has three words: A noun, a verb and 911.”

7:45 p.m.
Pundits were putting a lot of pressure on Obama in the days leading up to this debate to come out swinging in this event if he hoped to overtake Clinton’s substantial lead in the polls.

We’ll have to wait and see how the pundits rate Obama but a table of Obama supporters is happy with their candidates’ performance in this debate so far.

“He’s keeping his cool,” said Donna LoBue. “He has the answers. But he’s not getting emotional. Hillary is getting emotional. That keeps him above the fray.”

Yet, like some of the others at this event, this group of folks wearing Obama stickers also like Kucinich and would vote for him if they thought he could win in the more conservative parts of the country.

8:30 p.m.
The nachos are gone and the beers consumed and the post-debate crowd hanging around AJ’s Pub didn’t see a clear winner emerge from tonight’s event.

“I was leaning toward Edwards but I heard good things from (Connecticut Sen.) Chris Dodd and Richardson,” Sweetser said. “I also think Biden is a stealth candidate. But I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

Goldberg, on the other hand, doesn’t view as serious the second-tier candidates like Dodd and Biden.

“This was all about Edwards and Obama hitting Clinton,” Goldberg said. “Those other candidates are here for entertainment and they know it.”

They both agreed, though, that Clinton was on the defense all evening.

Among her toughest moments, they said, was when she failed to answer one way or the other a question about whether she supported a proposal in New York to give illegal immigrants driver’s licenses. Edwards and Obama both said they were confused by Clinton’s answer, and most of the folks watching in Concord yelled out agreement during the debate.

But this audience was far from a representative sample of voters; it’s vastly white and over the age of 45 years old.

The sole young person in evidence, Christina Walburn, a 27-year-old Obama supporter, says she is satisfied with her candidate’s performance and believes he will prevail despite the air of inevitability around talk of Clinton’s candidacy.

“I don’t think Obama had to come out in this debate swinging and throwing punches at Clinton,” she said. “He just had to be himself. He did that. He’s been so consistent. You get what you expect every time you hear him.”

Lisa Vorderbrueggen