No hits, no runs, no errors. The much-anticipated first "debate" of the 2008 Democratic candidates Thursday night at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., was a polite event and not a particularly enlightening one. Part of the problem was the format, in which candidates were limited to 60-second answers and not allowed to engage each other. Part of it was the sheer number of people onstage: eight candidates in all. But after 90 minutes, it was hard to pick out a single memorable answer. The only thing made clearer is why the candidates, who are facing scores of requests to repeat the exercise, are trying to put a limit to the number of debates in which they will participate.
The top three contenders Clinton, Obama, and Edwards did little to hurt or help themselves. That made it a wash for them. None of the so-called "second tier" Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson managed what they were hoping for, which was a badly needed breakout moment. Biden, however, got the biggest laugh of the night when moderator Brian Williams brought up his well-deserved reputation for talking too much and committing gaffes. "Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?" Williams asked. Biden's answer: "Yes." Which was followed by a long, pregnant silence.
There were also two long shots on the stage who attempted to stir things up. Congressman Dennis Kucinich tried to secure the hearts if not the support of the party's anti-war left, calling for Vice President Cheney's impeachment and promising to "move away from global warming and global warring." Former Senator Mike Gravel declared of the other candidates: "After standing up with them, some of these people frighten me."
At one point, Williams asked for a show of hands: "How many of you, in your adult lifetime, have had a gun in the house?" It turned out Gravel, Biden, Dodd, Richardson and Kucinich had. Edwards and Obama hadn't. Clinton clearly wasn't counting the armament that had surrounded her in the White House.
The more viable candidates had plenty of criticism to hurl, but almost all of it was directed at George Bush. Amongst themselves, there was only the occasional, indirect jab. Everyone knew that former North Carolina Senator John Edwards was referring to Illinois Senator Barack Obama when he said that on health care: "Rhetoric's not enough. High-falutin' language is not enough." Edwards is the only candidate in the race to have put forward a detailed health care plan; Obama has talked about the issue as a moral imperative demanding bold action, but hasn't offered any. Asked whether Senator Hillary Clinton should apologize, as he has, for her vote authorizing the Iraq invasion, Edwards said: "I think that's a question for the conscience of anybody who voted for this war. I mean, Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they've voted the right way. If so, they can support their vote."
Next week, the 2008 Republican contenders will hold or endure their first debate at the Reagan Library in California.