If you were looking for big fireworks or a knockout punch in the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2008 election cycle, you will no doubt be somewhat disappointed tonight. No one candidate seemed to dominate the field.
Though much of the coverage of this race has been through a "Clinton vs. Obama" frame thus far, they were just two of eight candidates on the stage tonight and each got their chance to make their case. In fact it was the two most unknown candidates representing the far left wing of the Democratic Party who created the relatively little heat on the stage.
Iraq was the issue that dominated more time than any other single issue in the debate as the presidential hopefuls continued to differentiate themselves on the subject in what has now become familiar ways to the Democratic activists who have been closely following the campaign thus far.
"I am proud that I opposed this war from the start," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, before pivoting to his support for a phased withdrawal plan.
"If I knew then what I now know I would not have voted that way," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, in her usual refrain.
When asked about Sen. Clinton's refusal to apologize for her 2002 war authorization vote, Sen. John Edwards took the opportunity to throw a bit of an elbow her way. "That is a question of conscience for Sen. Clinton or anyone else," said Edwards. The North Carolinian making his second run for the White House also delivered a pointed line in Sen. Obama's direction later in the debate on the topic of healthcare. "If you want to be President of the United States, to tell the American people what it is you want to do. Rhetoric's not enough. High-falutin' language is not enough," said Edwards in a clear reference to what critics say is Obama's penchant for lofty ideas, but a lack of specifics.
However, Sen. Obama talked with ease and some detail about health care policy, for example, in an effort to show he is a candidate not just of style, but also of substance.
In one of Brian Williams' more provocative questions of the evening about how the candidates would respond to a terrorist attack on two American cities, Sen. Obama first spoke about emergency response and then spoke of intelligence failures. His answer was in marked contrast to those provided by Gov. Richardson and Sen. Biden who began their responses with finding out who was responsible and responding with military action. Obama appeared uncomfortable with his initial response and came back to the issue of terrorism to add some muscle to it later on. "But one thing that I do have to go back on, on this issue of terrorism: We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down, networks have to be dismantled," he added a couple of minutes later.
All the major candidates seemed to successfully follow the most important rule for debates -- do no harm. When asked to address what moderator Brian Williams called the "elephants in the room," the candidates appeared well prepared and didn't trip into the potential pitfalls. Sen. Edwards dispatched the $400 haircut question with ease by again conceding that it was a mistake the campaign paid for the haircut and the mistake was "remedied." Sen. Obama moved easily past a question about his relationship with an ehtically questionable donor in Chicago with whom he entered into what he has called a "boneheaded" land deal.
One of the great moments of levity in the debate came when Sen. Biden, D-Del., was asked about his tendency to be verbose -- a character trait that got him into some trouble the day he announced his presidential bid -- and if he could reassure voters that he can be disciplined with his language as president. Biden responded with an uncharacteristically disciplined one word answer, "Yes." The senator was literally biting his lip to ensure he didn't go any further.
As for their styles, Sen. Clinton delivered a strong performance and appeared in command of her intended message to present herself as prepared for the nation's top job. In their pre-debate expectations talk, Sen. Obama and his campaign aides talked about how tough it was to keep his answers to 60 seconds and Obama did appear to struggle at times with the rhythm of the debate responses. Sen. Edwards appeared far more sure of himself and far less cautious than when the country last saw him on the debate stage in the 2004 race for the White House.
Of the so-called second-tier candidates, Sen. Biden probably did himself the most good. His passion and expertise on Iraq was apparent. At one point he pushed back hard against the reluctance to use military force displayed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Sen. Mike Gravel, R-Alaska, in their answers to questions about fighting terrorism. "Let's stop a lot of this happy talk here about the. . . use of force," said a feisty Biden.
Former Senator Mike Gravel seems to have clearly solidified his place in Jon Stewart's coverage of the debate for generating some of the more outrageous comments made on the stage tonight.