Let the Battle Begin

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Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards, makes a point as Former Gov. of Vermont Howard Dean looks on

Saturday night's Democratic presidential debate, in Columbia, S.C., had all the makings of a waste of time. It came earlier than ever in the process of selecting a nominee. Hardly anyone was watching. There were nine candidates, from serious to fringe, crowding the stage. And 90 minutes didn't give any of them much time. But it turned out to be worth the trip. The battle is engaged, and even in a field this large, no one sounded alike. More importantly, nearly every one of the nine left the debate with a more coherent, fully formed message. At this stage of the game, those are the tests to meet.

As often happens, the least revealing part of the evening was the most entertaining. That came first: Moderator George Stephanopoulos of ABC News,(who proved an adept ringmaster), succeeded in goading Senator Massachusetts John Kerry and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean to replay a bit of the feud that had dominated much of the news leading into the debate. Dean, referring to the fact that his commitment to a strong military had been questioned by a Kerry aide, said, "I would have preferred, if Senator Kerry had some concerns about my fitness to serve, that he speak to me directly about that." And Kerry, referring to the fact that Dean had been quoted as questioning his mettle, invoked his Vietnam combat record (something he did twice more in the course of the debate). "I don't need any lectures in courage from Howard Dean," Kerry said.

It was abundantly clear that these two men don't like each other. But then, we had figured that out already. That the Reverend Al Sharpton, of all people, would play peacemaker, with an admonition that the two shouldn't give the Republicans any more ammunition, was enough to move the debate onto other territory.

But the sparring continued—much of it centered on Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt and the ambitious health care plan he had unveiled the week before. Aides to the various campaigns argued afterward over how seriously Gephardt's proposal had been damaged in the fray. But the mere fact that he had made himself the center of discussion was something of a victory for a candidate whose biggest danger was being dismissed as being too shopworn, too tired and too tied to Big Labor to matter.

The candidate who may have gained the most, however, was Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who made a more muscular showing than has been seen to date. Al Gore's running mate grabbed hold of a message: He alone can go toe to toe with George Bush on the issues of national and homeland security that are the President's greatest strengths, which leaves him in the best position to attack Bush's weaknesses on the economy and social issues. Though the primary calendar presents no obvious opportunities for Lieberman in the early states, and he's not going to be an easy sell with the left-leaning Democratic primary electorate, he managed on Saturday night to buy a piece of political real estate for himself.

For North Carolina Senator John Edwards, the first-quarter fundraising champ, the challenge was to put an edge on the fuzzy populism that he has been road-testing in the early states. Edwards was more explicit in his assertion that big business can't be trusted to do the right thing. At one point, he described the Gephardt plan, which relies on corporate tax credits to fund near-universal health coverage, as the "you're in good hands with Enron" approach. That was probably the first time that anyone has suggested that Gephardt is a toady for corporate America.

When it came time for the candidates to ask each other questions, four of them addressed theirs to Florida Senator Bob Graham, who will formally begin his campaign on Tuesday. The fact that they seemed to be putting him through a job interview didn't do much to dispel the notion that late-entry Graham is really in it to become the running mate. But the extra airtime couldn't hurt, and Graham's spinners afterward insisted that their man came off looking like the upbeat, mature adult in the field. No one asked any questions of Kerry or Dean, apparently having concluded that they didn't want to give either any more oxygen.

Even the long shots had their moments, and it appears that one role they will play in this race is to force the others to talk about issues that don't always make it to the front burner. Former Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun focused on civil liberties, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich kept bringing the conversation back to trade.

Whether any of them will have what it takes to beat President Bush remains to be proven. But that's not the issue yet. Their first challenge is to convince Democrats that it's time to start paying attention. By that standard, everyone won on Saturday night.