The crowd here at Drake University had all the enthusiasm of a tailgate before the big game. By 7 a.m., supporters lined the streets leading up to the debate hall. Several Barack Obama supporters did a pom pom dance. "Barack Obama all the way," they chanted, as they performed a hip hop dance.
The players did not disappoint them.
Moderator George Stephanopoulos pushed the candidates to clarify two major perception problems for frontrunners Obama and Hillary Clinton.
"The first one," said Stephanopoulos, "is Barack Obama ready to be president? Is he experienced enough to be president?"
Obama listened patiently as his rivals pored over recent statements he has made on foreign policy issues -- that he'd be willing to sit down with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro without any preconditions; that he'd pursue high value targets from al Qaeda in Pakistan if President Musharaf is unwilling or unable to do so.
Several hinted strongly he's not experienced enough.
"You're not going to have time in January of '09 to get ready for this job," said Sen. Chris Dodd. "You've got to be ready immediately for it."
Stephanopoulos asked Sen. Joe Biden point blank if he agrees with that sentiment — a view he has expressed in similar terms before.
"I think I stand by the statement," said Biden, appearing a little embarrassed.
Obama was clearly prepared for the onslaught. "To prepare for this debate, I rode the bumper cars at the state fair, and it worked terrifically," he joked.
Obama deftly turned the experience question against Clinton as he argued for change from what he calls the "failed politics of Washington."
He said, "Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and many of the people on this stage that authorized the war."
The jab was obviously intended for Clinton.
Clinton's Achilles heel seems to be the perception she is too polarizing a figure to win a national election. She was asked to address a recent attack, leveled by outgoing White House political guru Karl Rove, that a Clinton candidacy is the Republican Party's best hope of keeping the White House.
Clinton was unfazed — and nearly called Rove a stalker. "I don't think Karl Rove is going to endorse me," she said. "But, I find it interesting he's so obsessed with me."
Clinton presented her weakness as a strength — focusing again on the issue of experience. She said, "The idea that you're going to escape the Republican attack machine, and not have high negatives by the time they're through with you, I think, is just missing what's been going on in American politics for the last 20 years."
Gov. Bill Richardson offered a compromise. "Sen. Obama does represent change. Sen. Clinton has experience. Change and experience — with me, you get both!"
Sen. John Edwards largely sought to remain above the fray. But, he poked hard at Clinton for accepting campaign contributions from Washington lobbyists. He noted that Obama had joined him in a pledge not to accept such money.
"Why don't we all make an absolutely clear statement that we are the party of the people — not the party of Washington insiders?" he demanded, noting that Clinton has refused to take such a pledge.
Clinton insists she is strong enough to stand up to lobbyists, even if they do contribute to her campaign. "I have stood up against special interest," she said, citing health care reform and class action reform as examples.
The debate featured a spirited disagreement on how best to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador, described his one-point plan: get them all out as soon as possible.
Biden argued that such a precipitous withdrawal would lead to disaster. "If we leave Iraq, and we leave it in chaos, there'll be regional war. The regional war will engulf us for a generation," he said.
Political reporter David Yepsin of the Des Moines Register turned, at that point, to Clinton: "You've got the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee saying one thing. And the former U.N. ambassador saying another. Who's right?" he asked.
"Joe [Biden]'s right," Clinton conceded. "This is going to take a while."
The 90-minute televised debate was the first one in Iowa for the Democratic candidates, and the first to be broadcast on network TV. It'll also be the last such forum to be held for a while. Obama has made it clear he will not attend many future candidate forums, because there are simply too many of them.
"All the other candidates are going to run for cover behind him, and breathe a big sigh of relief," said Stephanopoulos after the debate. "I think he said out loud what a lot of the others are thinking."
But some of the lesser-known candidates are bound to complain. Even at this forum, some of them had trouble getting a word in edgewise.
"George, I've been standing here for the last 45 minutes, praying to God you were going to call on me," joked Rep. Dennis Kucinich, in answer to a question on prayer.
The crowd, and the moderator, erupted with laughter.
"You have a direct pipeline, Congressman," joked Stephanopoulos.