Excluding the war in Iraq, the Democratic presidential contenders at today's Iowa debate steered clear of the campaign's many hot-button issues, discussing instead a range of unexpected social and personal issues and frequently returning to the theme of experience.
Much of the debate was couched in language pitting experienced political veterans against new ideas from candidates who haven't spent decades as Washington insiders. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton took center stage, deflecting barbs from the other candidates and leaving former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who entered the debate virtually tied for first place with Obama and Clinton in Iowa, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, struggling to assert himself as a first-tier candidate nationally.
Despite weeks of increasingly heated rhetoric on the campaign trail, much of it directed at Obama and his experience, Clinton passed on her first chance to attack the Illinois senator, deflecting the first question out of the gate about whether Obama "was ready."
Much of the rhetoric regarding Obama's lack of experience focused on his previous comments that he would be willing to meet with adversarial leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Despite her initially conciliatory tone, when pushed to comment on Obama's position, Clinton reiterated her initial criticism of Obama's statement, saying, "I don't think any president should give away a bargaining chip of a personal meeting with any leader, unless you know what you're going to get out of that."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would not answer moderator George Stephanopoulos' direct question about Obama's experience.
"You know, I think that Sen. Obama does represent change. Sen. Clinton has experience. Change and experience: With me, you get both," Richardson said, getting a laugh out of the audience.
"You know, it's interesting. You talk about the dispute between the two senators over dictators that — should we, should we not meet? I've met them already, most of them. All my life I've been a diplomat trying to bring people together."
Obama used the debate's focus on experience to deflect much of the criticism he has received, pointing out that more experienced leaders led the country into a quagmire in Iraq and have continued to support ineffective policies for dealing with U.S. adversaries.
He did not back down from his previous statements that he would meet with rogue leaders if elected.
"I don't actually see that much difference or people criticizing me on the substance of my positions. I think that there's been some political maneuvering taking place over the last couple of weeks," Obama said. "It is my belief that we need a fundamental change if we're going to dig ourselves out of the hole that George Bush has placed us in. And that's going to require the kind of aggressive diplomacy — preparation, yes, but aggressive diplomacy, the personal diplomacy of the next president — to transform how the world sees us. That is ultimately going to make us safer."
At no other point in the debate were the candidates so heated or divergent in their positions than they were when debating a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.