At 7 a.m. Sunday, twelve hours before the start of the Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN, the network anchorpersons, with no hint of irony, were calling the programs that would precede the debate "pre-game shows." It was the appropriate description, and not just because of the pep rally-style greetings with which supporters welcomed the eight contenders to the campus of St. Anselm College outside Manchester, New Hampshire, the de facto capital city of the first presidential primary.
The debate itself was sport. Its goals were speed and conflict, the more personal the better (perhaps as an appropriate lead into the post-debate show, called "raw politics"). The purpose of the questions was not to elicit information; it was to get the candidates to call each other names.
Just a few minutes into the event, one of the questioners, local television reporter Scott Spradling, asked Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the only candidate who voted for the last month's war funding bill, "Why were Senators Obama, Clinton, Dodd and Congressmen Kucinich wrong to vote against the funding?" Biden was having none of that.
"I'm not going to make a judgment on why they were wrong," he said. "I'll tell you why I was right." And so he did. But his answer did not satisfy the debate anchor, CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
"Senator Biden," Blitzer said, "why are you reluctant to say now: They were wrong, and you were right?"
"Because I don't want to judge them'" Biden said. "I mean, these are my friends."
It wasn't that the friends didn't have enough to squabble about. Some of them, notably former Senator John Edwards, instigated a fight or two. But mere squabbles were not enough for Blitzer and his colleagues. They were out for blood, or at least for getting one of the candidates to offend or insult one or more of the others.
So Edwards was asked not only whether his opponents were wrong in thinking they could provide broader health care without raising taxes, but "are they being honest?" Edwards declined to say they were not. A few minutes later, after Senator Hillary Clinton of New York said she was "thrilled health care was back on the table," and that improving the system required "political will," Blitzer returned to the theme: "And you can do that without raising taxes?
And when the subject of gay rights came up, the focus was less about future choices than about whether former President Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was a mistake. Bickering, the harsher and more personal the better, was obviously CNN's goal.
The other goal was brevity, a virtue unless extended to the point of haste. The candidates, especially the non-front-runners, could barely get out one sentence before Blitzer began making a kind of 'hmmmpph' sound and then interrupted them. The apparent assumption (who knows? perhaps an accurate assumption) was that the audience would grow bored at any answer that took more time than it takes to read a bumper sticker.
The candidates though, have to go to debate with the format they have, not one they might have wished for, and the debate itself -- the first in New Hampshire but by no means the last -- allowed each contender to demonstrate his or her political situation even if it barely allowed them to state a policy position.
The most obvious illustrations came from Clinton, who is well ahead in the polls, and Edwards, who appears to be fading. The former North Carolina senator was ready to take advantage of that question to Biden about whether the others were wrong to vote against the funding bill. "I think it's the difference between leading and following," he said, obviously referring to Clinton and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, both of whom ended up voting against the bill but did not oppose it at the outset. "Others on this stage -- Chris Dodd spoke out very loudly and clearly. But … others did not," Edwards said. "Others were quiet. They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote. But there is a difference between leadership and legislating."
Obama, whose early momentum appears to have faded, and who is stuck substantially behind Clinton but ahead of Edwards in the latest polling, shot right back. "The fact is that I opposed this war from the start. So you're about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue." And Clinton? She stayed as high above the battle as possible, just the place to be if you have a comfortable lead.
"I think it's important to point out: This is George Bush's war. He is responsible for this war," she said. It was a theme to which she kept returning. "The differences among us are minor," she said at one point. "The differences between us and the Republicans are major." The approach seemed to work. By evening's end the common buzz among the buzzers in the press filing and "spin" rooms was that Clinton had won the night. If she had not been notably better than the rest, she had been notably as good, and that's good enough for the front-runner.
Later, the Obama "spinners" argued that Clinton might have hurt herself by saying that Americans are "safer than we were" before September 11, 2001, if "not yet safe enough." The Iraq war, they said, has made the United States less safe, and Clinton might have displeased some anti-war Democrats.
Perhaps, but one of the interesting questions about the Democratic race is just how intensely anti-war the candidates have to be. Sometimes they seem to be vying in a "more anti-war than thou" contest in response to the organized, articulate constituency of MoveOn and similar groups.
But it isn't clear whether the rank-and-file Democratic primary voter cares. He cares about getting out of Iraq, certainly, but perhaps less about who was responsible for getting into it and whose anti-war rhetoric is harsher. More importantly, it could be said that she cares more about the future than about the past regarding the war -- in the most recent polling, it is women who give Clinton her big lead. They don't like the war, but they seem to like her, whatever she did in 2002 and however late she may have been in arriving at her anti-war position.
Blitzer and his fellow questioners aimed 44 of their 104 questions at the top three candidates, and 59 to "the other guys," those given little chance of winning the nomination by analysts. But "the other guys" had ample opportunity to show their stuff, and with the exception of former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, the (unintentional) comic relief of the Democratic campaign, they strutted rather well.
This includes Ohio Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, who will not be nominated, but who vigorously articulates positions -- get out of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, adopt a single-payer, government-run health care system -- outside the boundaries considered respectable by the political-governmental-academic establishment. They may, in fact, fall within the boundaries considered respectable by Democratic primary voters, but Kucinich is not the candidate who will answer that question. What the left needs is a candidate with Kucinich's intensity and Obama's charm. As for the others, the mini-winner of the night might have been Biden, who was more intense, blunt, and dramatic than Connecticut's Dodd -- surely the least flashy, if arguably the most stable -- or Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
All in all, the most notable sign of life in the debate may have been the evident seeds of a rebellion against the debate format itself. When Blitzer asked which of them, as president, would attack Osama bin Laden if the decision had to be made in 20 minutes and would entail the killing of civilians (in unspecified numbers), Kucinich said no, Obama said yes, but the others objected to the details of the hypothetical question.
"Wolf, we're not going to engage in these hypotheticals," Clinton complained a few minutes later, when Blitzer asked if the United States should send troops to Darfur. "I don't think it's useful to be talking in these kind of abstract, hypothetical terms." There was a stirring among the candidates, who for a moment appeared ready to unite and rise up against a common foe -- Blitzer and all that he represented.
But they restrained themselves. The revolution will have to wait.