Democrats duke it out onstage

ORANGEBURG, S.C. - Augusta's Helen Blocker-Adams doesn't care about John Edwards' $400 haircuts or Barack Obama's ties to indicted Chicago developer Tony Rezko.


"What does that have to do with him being president?" she asked.

What she does care about: health care policies, plans for Iraq, a commitment to bipartisanship.

Unfortunately for the eight Democratic candidates who debated here Thursday night, Ms. Blocker-Adams didn't hear enough details on any of those to impress her.

Moderated by NBC's Brian Williams and broadcast live, it was the first opportunity Americans had to compare the party's two major presidential candidates side by side.

They didn't make much of an impact on Ms. Blocker-Adams, though.

"I'm just so sick of the politically correct answers," she said.

Ms. Blocker-Adams represents one of two groups any Democratic candidate will have to impress in order to win the presidency in 2008: independents.

Proud of her history of voting for the candidate, not the party, Ms. Blocker-Adams participated in The Committee for a United Independent Party's Debate Watch '08 survey.

Participants nationwide watched Democratic candidates square off in Orangeburg on Thursday night and analyzed what they heard.

Ms. Blocker-Adams - a 46-year-old business consultant - caught half of the debate. None of the candidates made a significant impression, she said - though she liked former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel's candor.

Asked about a comment he made a while back saying it didn't matter whether he won the presidency, Mr. Gravel responded: "You're right. I made that statement. But that's before I had a chance to stand with them (the other candidates) a couple or three times. It's like going into the Senate. You know, the first time you get there, you're all excited, 'My God, how did I ever get here?' Then, about six months later, you say, 'How the hell did the rest of them get here?'"

Ms. Blocker-Adams does want to hear more from Mr. Obama, the Illinois senator, and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware: Mr. Biden, because he's experienced; Mr. Obama, because he's not a career politician - yet, she said.

"He does seem to have some fresh ideas because he's a new face out there," Ms. Blocker-Adams said.

There's one other group of voters Democrats have to woo: Democrats themselves.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden, Mr. Edwards, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Mr. Gravel all are fighting for the right to go head-to-head with the Republican Party's choice for president in 2008.

And to do that, they'll have to win the Democratic primaries.

Planned for Jan. 29, South Carolina's primary is one of the earliest.

As a result, Democrats here are in the national spotlight and are hoping to use that to the party's advantage.

The Democratic Party has a deep bench this time around, and the debate will prove it to America, said Aiken County Democratic Chairman John Brecht.

For South Carolina in particular, Mr. Brecht said, it's an opportunity to show what Democrats can offer: fiscal responsibility, "responsible" foreign policy in Iraq, affordable education.

A Democratically controlled Congress already is a good start, he said.

"Aiken County is probably within the top 13 Republican Party (counties) in the state, and I'm trying to grow a Democratic Party," he said.

"It's an uphill battle."

Reach Kirsten Singleton at (803) 414-6611 or