Pulling Punches

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- The spin room of a desultory debate doesn't really offer much in the way of spin. The Democrats are frozen in the grip of niceness just now; the specter of the penitent Howard Dean (D-Vt.), reciting his record as governor in hopes of arresting his fall, has put them all on painfully good behavior.

Thursday night's debate offered precious little red meat of any kind. Democrats refrained from attacking one another, a dynamic that surely helped front-runner Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Worse yet, because their questioners confronted them ad nauseum with one Republican attack after another -- so you raise taxes, senator, or waffle on the war, or mock your Catholic God (Brit Hume's question on abortion rights, posed not once but twice to retired Gen. and practicing Protestant Wesley Clark) -- the candidates had practically no opportunity to go after George W. Bush on the economy or any number of other real issues.

Spin rooms are the province of restatements and clarifications, of attacks rebutted and zingers returned. Absent attacks and zingers, however, there wasn't a lot to rebut. Kerry and Dean didn't put in an appearance, though Clark and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) did show up, and short, centrist Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) clambered onto a chair so that cameras could document his presence. (In a crowd. Lieberman's existence -- like that of his supporters generally -- is hard to document.)

Dean was represented by his campaign guru, Joe Trippi, whose message was that voters that evening had seen the real Howard Dean, the one who'd delivered health care and balanced budgets as governor. Trippi also offered the Dean campaign's diagnosis of what had gone so wrong in Iowa. "We went through six weeks of being battered," he said, "of attack-respond, attack-respond. When you do that, you lose your message. That's what happened to Bill Clinton in '91."

Trippi meant early '92, of course -- when Clinton's New Hampshire campaign went through its Gennifer Flowers and draft-deferment crises. But, in fact, Clinton didn't lose his message. After a couple of days, he went back to his call for a more activist government, which would provide universal health care, and a more demanding government, which would put an end to welfare as we knew it. Clinton never lost his cool or his zeal, and New Hampshire voters rewarded him with a second-place finish that sped him toward the White House.

Trippi's statement was a small mistake, but it does suggest a general rule for the handlers of Democratic candidates: Don't compare your guy to Clinton. No matter what, Clinton was a better candidate than yours, seeing as how he was the best Democratic candidate since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This is minutia, I know, but it was a minute debate. Reporters largely inquired after one another's welfare -- "D'ya stay awake?" was a common question -- and wondered how, absent anyone attacking Kerry, the dynamic of the race could be turned around. The dynamic of the race actually remains the dynamic of Iowa. Kerry is still rising in the polls, opening a 10-point lead over the falling Dean in numerous tracking surveys; Clark, the raison d'être for his candidacy substantially weakened by Kerry's return from the dead, is falling, too; and Edwards is rising from the bottom just slightly. Edwards' failure to surge is the only development that doesn't follow the pattern of the final week in Iowa.

Kerry wasn't particularly "on" during Thursday night's debate. Confronted with Republican attacks on his liberalism, he referred too often to centrist votes he'd cast rather than simply saying that his differences with Bush were those that anyone who loved this nation should welcome. But Kerry said nothing to damage himself, and as no one else said anything much that would damage him either, the debate passed without incident.

Some reporters wondered why Clark hadn't handled the Michael Moore question -- did the former general agree with that Bush had been a deserter? -- fumfering that he didn't know what exactly Bush had been doing during that missing year in the Air National Guard. Personally, I was rooting for Clark to take a tough-love approach, much as Bush does toward underachievement in school -- something along the lines of, "If he'd deserted from my unit during wartime, we would have shot him." That would have made for one hell of a spin room. But Clark, reputedly currying the women's vote, sadly wussed out.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

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