Watching a presidential debate in the video age is a lot like watching a stock car race: Everyone says they're watching in order to learn something, when in fact they're waiting to see someone screw up in a spectacular way.
None of the eight Democrats in the first televised presidential debate of the 2008 race managed to destroy themselves. The frontrunners, in order of their standing in the polls, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, played it safe by avoiding direct confrontations with each other. The only ones who didn't play it safe were the long shots Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska. They had nothing to lose and therefore with refreshing shoot-from-the-lip candor said what they really think.
Kucinich, holding on to the left tip of the party's left wing, sounded his proud call for Vice President Cheney's impeachment. He was joined in his position by exactly none of the other candidates. His call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq found company with his fellow long shot, Gravel, whose prospects can be measured by the legions who responded to the mention of his name, as I did, with "Who's he?"
Yet he provided valuable comic relief and captured the tone of the evening when moderator Brian Williams of NBC asked Gravel why anyone should take his campaign seriously. He compared joining the race to his early days in the Senate. "You know the first time you get there you're all excited 'My God, how did I ever get here?' " he said. "And then, about six months later, you say, 'How the hell did the rest of them get here?' "
That's how I felt, as an impatient viewer, about every one of the eight who was not Clinton, Obama or Edwards. This was the first time for voters to compare the three frontrunners on the same stage, and I wanted to see them have at each other. That would be a real debate, which is precisely what candidates have tried to avoid having in the TV age. Too many opportunities for a car wreck.
Instead, the "second-tier" candidates, as the political commentators pundits call them because it sounds nicer than "also-rans," got a valuable opportunity to share the spotlight with the frontrunners. Beyond looking good and sounding smart, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico accomplished little more than to enhance their chances to be somebody's running mate.
That's because the frontrunners performed for the cameras like seasoned veterans of "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars." They strengthened their standing by hitting their marks and not tripping up. You could have called this show "Dancing with the Dems."
A particularly revealing example came after Williams fired a hypothetical zinger as to how each would respond after a catastrophic al-Qaida attack in two cities. Clinton responded like she's been thinking about that hypothetical for a while, as one would hope she has been. "I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate," she said. Once we determine who was behind the attack and what nations might have given material aid to the attackers, "I believe we should quickly respond," she said.
By contrast, Obama's directed his first words toward the need for a strong response by emergency teams and how a lack of that strong response spelled disaster for victims of Hurricane Katrina. I am sure that response played well to members of the Democratic base who care about taking care of the needy, but the question was about national defense. In a moment that called for a blood-stirring vow to avenge America against all attackers, he seemed to change the subject.
Fortunately for Obama and others who are vying to beat Clinton, this is only the first debate. As a warm-up, it served the frontrunners well. The long shot candidates made them look like moderates, which plays well with swing voters. Clinton sounded strong, knowledgeable and confident enough to restore many of those who want to vote for her but wonder whether she can win. Obama showed he could hold his own with the other contenders while he refines his policies and programs.
Edwards, who has staked out the most a detailed position on health care, showed his experience, too. If Obama or Hillary falter, he's waiting to move up. So far, the frontrunners haven't done much to hurt themselves. But it's early. Give them time.