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Bill Schneider: Forum brought a few authentic moments

CNN's Bill Schneider

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(CNN) -- Eight of the nine Democratic candidates vying for the presidency reached out to young voters Tuesday night in a forum sponsored by CNN and America Rocks The Vote. So, how'd they do? CNN's Soledad O'Brien talked to Bill Schneider, CNN senior political correspondent, early Wednesday about the debate.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about some of the most memorable moments in the debate. It seems like everybody from the get-go was piling onto Howard Dean, right?

SCHNEIDER: That's right. There was a moment that was unusual because it was very authentic. In these debates, the candidates give a lot of set speeches no matter what you ask them. But there was one moment that broke through.

Howard Dean has been sensitive to the fact that he doesn't have a lot of support among blue-collar workers, union members, minorities, poor people. And he tried to remedy that by saying he wanted to be the candidate for the guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. A young black man said he was offended by that comment. The Confederate flag, of course, is a symbol of racism and slavery, and he asked Dean to apologize. Dean refused to do that and that provoked this memorable exchange.


HOWARD DEAN: I make no apologies for reaching out to poor white people.

AL SHARPTON: But the Confederate flag is not poor white people. And that sounds more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do. One of the problems that we have with young people today is people talk down to you. You know, you get all pigeonholed. They stereotype you. Exactly the same thing happens with people from the South. I have seen it. I have grown up with it. I'm here to tell you it is wrong. It is condescending.


SCHNEIDER: That's the key word. The key word is condescending. That's [where] John Edwards, I think, was outstanding last night. He refused to condescend to his audience. He objected to being condescended to as a Southerner and even in those short videos the candidates presented, his was the least cringe-inducing because it was the least condescending. When his ads showed a young man, a young African-American man, asking questions about his goals and his future, and Sen. Edwards responding to him directly. Sen. Edwards avoided any condescension to that audience and I thought it was very effective.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it seemed like he really came out in front to some degree in this debate.

Let's talk about any other issues that seemed to stand out, any other sort of real moments, as you like to call them.

SCHNEIDER: Well, there really was another real moment. You know, there was an interesting contrast between two issues. When someone asked the candidates, 'Have you ever smoked pot?,' it was almost like, 'Who cares anymore?' Several of them said yes. Two of them said no. But it was the ones who said no, I never smoked pot, they're the ones who had the explanation. Al Sharpton said he belonged to a church that didn't believe in it and Dennis Kucinich said no, but I believe it should be decriminalized.

Pot is no longer an issue. The baby boomers have essentially said it's OK.

But there is an issue that separates this generation, the under-30s, from those who are over 30, and that's the issue of gay rights. Gay rights is the civil rights cause for this younger generation. They believe it's outrageous bigotry and they won't stand for it. There was one authentic moment, another one, when Sen. Kerry addressed the issue of gay rights to this audience.


SEN. JOHN KERRY: There's a cemetery, the congressional cemetery in Washington, D.C., where there's a tombstone. And the tombstone says, "My country gave me a medal for killing a man and gave me a dishonorable discharge for loving one."


SCHNEIDER: I thought that was a moment when Sen. Kerry connected with his audience, just as Edwards did earlier in the Confederate flag controversy. It's one of those rare moments of authenticity in these debates.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Howard Dean (left) and Al Sharpton clasp hands after Tuesday's debate.

O'BRIEN: Remember the MTV town hall -- well, of course you do. But the MTV town hall where Bill Clinton was asked about boxers or briefs, was there any moment that sort of -- I'm not sure it's critically important, but often it sort of takes the temperature of the audience. Any moment that you thought rivaled that moment from years ago?

SCHNEIDER: Well, there was when at the end a woman, a young woman, asked the candidates an odd question. She said if you had to pick any one of the candidates you'd like to party with, which one would it be? And at that moment I thought Al Sharpton had a very smart answer. He turned to Sen. John Kerry and said if there's anyone I'd like to party with -- with apologies to Sen. Kerry -- I'd like to party with Mrs. Kerry, with your wife.

O'BRIEN: Yes, I think the senator's follow-up of, 'Well, I guess I have to party with them then so I can keep an eye on my wife,' was pretty funny, as well.

SCHNEIDER: That's right.

O'BRIEN: Before we lose you here, I want to quickly get to some of the local elections and state elections last night. Really, the major headline there, that the Republicans are moving into the governor's mansions in two contests there.

SCHNEIDER: That's right. In Mississippi and Kentucky, both states had Democratic governors. They will now have Republican governors. In the case of Kentucky, for the first time in 32 years. President Bush had gone to both states to campaign for the Republican candidates. They won. It looks like a big victory. That's the way it's going to be read, as a big victory for Mr. Bush.

The best the Democrats can do to spin this -- and that's a lot of politics these days -- is to say well, it was really anti-incumbent voting, just like what happened to Gray Davis in California. The voters were unhappy with the way things were going, they threw the incumbents out -- in all three states, the incumbents happened to be Democrats and that could be a danger sign for President Bush next year.

That's going to be some spin. But I think the prevailing interpretation is a big day for Republicans. They've really established a very solid base in the South.

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