The Democratic Party has had some issues, to put it mildy, this year when it comes to keeping control over its own voting schedule. Last night's debate in Philadelphia showed that it's having some trouble keeping control over its debates as well. It actually does a disservice to Democratic voters when a moderator like Tim Russert becomes a debate participant and makes a show of only pressing one candidate severely. Part of the point of these debates is to show how the various candidates respond to pressure, and to learn about their thoughts on various issues. If only one candidate is being pressed about differences with other candidates, it is unfair to the voters who are also trying to evaluate the rest of the pack. For example, it would have been interesting and illuminating to have heard from John Edwards and Barack Obama on the Peru trade deal, given how hot a topic trade is in Iowa, and how they clearly disagree with each other on this issue -- and also since Hillary Clinton is still on the fence about the deal. But Peru didn't even come up, because the course of the debate questioning, at least in the first hour, was dictated by and echoed the course of various candidate attacks on Clinton over Social Security and Iran, and then a G.O.P. one on Obama, rather than by questions that would illuminate policy differences between any of the other candidates. After that, the questions were an odd-mix of open-ended softballs to the non-frontrunning candidates and attempts to press Clinton over things other members of the New York delegation support.
Additionally, it's unfair to some of the less well-financed candidates like Joe Biden when they get so little air time, especially at a moment when there's less of a polling gap between Biden -- or Bill Richardson -- and Edwards in the lead-off state than there is between Hillary Clinton and Edwards there. Edwards led Richardson by 8 percentage points in the most recent American Research Group poll of likely Iowa Caucus-goers (and Biden by 10) while Clinton led Edwards by 17 percentage points.
Overall, where early debates showcased the Democratic candidates in such a way that the entire field seemed strong, this was a debate that cast a negative light on them all. Clinton looked brittle, Obama looked unready for prime-time, and Edwards looked so impressively pugnacious that it was ultimately unattractive. And then the whole thing ended with a focus on Dennis Kucinich's claim to have seen a U.F.O. Only Biden came out of the debate looking better than when he went into it.
Here's the "Dodd Talk Clock" showing how much airtime each of the candidates got: