What hath TV wrought? A serious debate? A debate with no snowmen, guys with shotguns or questions about baseball?
Astonishing. But that is what occurred in Des Moines on yesterday, when the Republican candidates for president gathered together in their last debate before the Iowa caucus on Jan. 3.
Carolyn Washburn, editor of The Des Moines Register, asked all the questions and did so in a manner that suggests she believes a presidential debate should be more about information than entertainment.
That is a staggering concept and one that some reporters may not have liked there were few of the fireworks that fuel juicy story lines but I have a feeling serious voters, which the Iowans who vote on caucus night are, got a lot out of it.
Mitt Romney, who has the most at stake in Iowa, did very well, precisely because he never forgot that although the debate was broadcast nationally, the most important audience was local.
In other words, he dared to pander.
"Anybody who's worried about the future of this great land just needs to come to Iowa," Romney said, "and meet the people with the kind of heartland values that you have here."
Romney was also the only candidate to directly ask people to vote for him. "I want to say to the people of Iowa: I need your help," Romney said. "I'd like your vote. I want you to get out and participate in that caucus."
For Romney, Iowa is a must-win. His strategy is to do well in the early states to build enough momentum to overcome opposition chiefly that of Rudy Giuliani in later states.
If Romney stumbles at the beginning, however, his strategy falls apart. True, he can lose Iowa and go on to New Hampshire, where he has a formidable lead (for now), but then he could run into real trouble in South Carolina, where Mike Huckabee has a large lead.
Romney is not the candidate of the Republican establishment nobody is and because of that, he does not have a large base that will support him in rough times.
When Bob Dole lost to Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire in 1996, for example, the party rallied around Dole and he went on to win the nomination.
The party is currently unlikely to rally around Romney in the same way, however. And because of that, Romney did everything he could to establish his party bona fides by invoking the name of Republican icon Ronald Reagan and the optimism Reagan made his trademark.
On the very first question, an interesting one on whether America faces a security risk due to its high debt, Romney refused to be gloomy.
"This is not a time for us to wring our hands and feel the future is bleak," he said. "Our future is bright."
Huckabee is leading Romney in the polls in Iowa, but the media have been gorging on Huckabee in recent days.
First it was Huckabee saying about AIDS patients in 1992 that the government should "isolate the carriers of this plague."
Then, in a magazine article that will appear in The New York Times on Sunday, Huckabee, perhaps slyly, asks a reporter: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" (For the record, a spokesman for the Mormon church says that Mormons do not believe that.)
Huckabee stayed far away from Mormonism on Wednesday, but in a video shown during the debate he criticized candidates who did not talk about their religion.
Huckabee said: "If a person says, 'I'm a person of faith, but I don't let it influence me and I don't talk about it,' what they just told me is that their faith is so immaterial, insignificant and inconsequential that it really isn't a faith at all."
Huckabee, a Baptist minister, is courting the evangelical Protestant vote both in Iowa and South Carolina, but he and Romney, who recently gave a 30-minute speech on religion, may be risking a backlash.
Some voters may be growing tired, I think, of all this emphasis on religion, believing that the presidency is a secular office and that it is perfectly OK not to wear one's religion on one's sleeve.
On other topics, when the Register's Washburn asked if any of the candidates would ask the American people for sacrifice, only Fred Thompson had a concrete proposal.
"We need to tell people that are in Warren Buffett's category, we're not going to take care of all your Medicare in the future," Thompson said. "We can't afford it."
Buffett, the third-richest person in the world, with a net worth estimated at $53 billion, probably is not worried.
One of the rare moments of laughter in the debate came when Giuliani was asked about accusations that he hid expenses he charged to taxpayers for his then-girlfriend's security and whether he would be more open as president.
"I would make sure that government was transparent," Giuliani said. "My government in New York City was so transparent that [people] knew every single thing I did almost every time I did it."