It was not exactly on the oratorical level of the celebrated Lincoln-Douglas debates of the last century. But two later gentlemen from Illinois -- Representatives Anderson and Crane -- did separate themselves from the crowd as America's first major political show of 1980 took place Saturday night with the stars missing. All credit to the Des Moines Register and Tribune for carrying on with the occasion, and to public television for broadcasting it live, even though the front-runners did not risk comparison with their challengers.
The Democratic vacuum was complete, as President Carter's cancellation wiped out the scheduled debate between him, Senator Kennedy, and Governor Brown. Mr. Carter said that he had more urgent business running the country during a crisis (a case we have supported); though he has reportedly been willing to make time for politics less exposed to the public than the Iowa confrontation.
The Republican debate -- or six-man "forum" -- plugged on despite the boycott by Governor Reagan on grounds of not wanting to be divisive in his own party. The remaining debaters made much of Reagan's absence as leaving him the main loser.
It is possible that the public will see the Carter and Reagan unwillingness to debate as a negative sign. On the other hand, the national audience was relatively small, and the two may have loss less by not opening themselves to questions. Put aside the effect on their personal political fortunes and the merits of their reasons for not appearing. Whatever the case, they deprived voters of the educational experience of seeing them with their opponents -- and they undercut the potential of the event by reducing the media coverage and thus the audience.
Those who did tune in witnessed the ability of Messrs. Crane, Baker, Anderson , Connally, Dole, and Bush to share a platform with dignity, fluency, and even a bit of humor. What made the gentlemen from Illinois, Crane and Anderson, stand out is that they conveyed an impression of strong convictions not necessarily calculated for safe political appeal.
Mr. Crane went unapologetically to the right, the only contender to say flat out that he thought America had fallen behind the Soviets militarily and that he did not want mere parity with them but superiority. He didn't split hairs about what kind of tax cuts to have; he was for the big across-the-board variety espoused by fellow Republican Jack Kemp.
Yet Mr. Crane was different from most on the platform in degree rather than in kind. It was Mr. Anderson who dramatized his distinction from them all, remaining progressive on social issues while espousing fiscal responsibility.
Only Mr. Anderson dared to say in grain- growing Iowa that he favored the President's proposed reduction in grain sales to the Soviet Union in response to its Afghanistan adventure. He suggested that a gesture means more if it involves some sacrifice. When the question was whether the candidates had any regrets about anything, only Mr. Anderson broke from easy generalities and named something he really regretted -- his vote in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that paved the way for heavy US involvement in the Vietnam war. Only Mr. Anderson proposed a tough measure to reduce dependence on foreign oil -- a 50-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax to be recycled to cut social security taxes. Each of the other candidates went on record against this tax as they did against the cut in grain sales to Moscow.
The virtue of an event like the Iowa forum is that it permits the public to evaluate something of the candidates besides their records in black and white and their stump speeches in isolation from immediate comparison. It's not that a voter will necessarily be drawn to the candidate who is different. But the differences contribute to sharpening the issues. And there is a possibility that voters can get some sense of that indefinable and variously expressed quality of leadership which has become such a basic issue in the campaign, which not only proposes programs but inspires constructive effort and action.
As Lincoln said back in one of those Illinois debates more than a century ago: "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions."