When the nine Democratic presidential candidates gather at the University of New Hampshire Tuesday night for a televised debate, they can take a deep breath and sigh, "Here we go again."
By the count of Steve Murphy, Rep. Dick Gephardt's campaign manager, the congressman has participated in 24 debates so far this season - including the five organized by the Democratic National Committee. (Tuesday night's will be the DNC's sixth.)
Most of the other candidates can boast similar numbers, marked by travel schedules contorted around the need to get to far-flung places, like New Mexico and South Carolina and Michigan, all for the privilege of a few minutes on camera in a debate watched by relatively few viewers. Add to that the down time devoted to debate prep - more hours that could have been spent pressing the flesh in Iowa and New Hampshire, hosts of the first nominating contests.
But when all is said and done, political observers say, no one in the business has figured out a better way to build this proverbial mouse trap.
So the operatives keep complaining - and the candidates keep going, some of them chartering private jets to make sure they get where they need to be.
"If you go back to the reason [the DNC debates] were done in the first place - to manage what had become an unwieldy process, with every interest group in the world wanting its bite of the debate apple - this gave it some structure that the process really needed," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report.
According to one Democratic strategist, the candidates were fielding hundreds, "on the way to thousands," of invitations to debate, when the DNC stepped in and set a schedule.
Other groups, such as the AARP - which represents older voters, an especially vital constituency in primary season - have managed to command the candidates' debating time as well.
For those candidates with a big stake in the debates, an added irritant has been the inclusion of lower-tier candidates who dilute the focus of the events, and sometimes steal the show with witty comebacks (see the Rev. Al Sharpton). The debates "are part of what has served to keep the field big," says Ms. Duffy. "But I don't know how choices are a bad thing."
If you're a member of Congress, House or Senate, who voted in favor of the October 2002 resolution supporting President Bush's goal of ousting Saddam Hussein, and you're running for president, the debates have been treacherous at times. Iraq has emerged as a central issue in the campaign, and has helped catapult former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - who made opposition to war an early, central feature of his message - to front-runner status.
Much of the media questioning during the debates has centered on Iraq, thus allowing Dr. Dean to distinguish himself from the other top-tier candidates. Even as Dean's challengers, such as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, seek to discredit him for his lack of foreign-policy experience, Dean's followers become only more loyal. It comes as no surprise, then, that one aide to Senator Kerry is particularly negative on the topic of the debates.
"The value [of the debates] is somewhat minimal to anybody," says the Kerry strategist. "I guess the major purpose is to provide an organizing principle for journalists to write about the campaign. Sometimes issues get surfaced. But just as often, they're an opportunity to make mistakes, as Dean did on the confederate flag."
Dean's comment, that he hoped to appeal to white Southerners with confederate flags on their pickups, sparked a few days of heated national discussion - and even offered Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina a rare opportunity to break out of the pack. There have been other breakout moments, such as Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt's mantra that Bush has been "a miserable failure."
What gives these events legs is the continuing media coverage after the debate is over - and so even if TV viewership isn't all that big, compared with, say, Paris Hilton's new reality TV show, certain debate moments do fly into the general public's radar.
And when the raw TV numbers are considered - between 750,000 and 1.5 million viewers per DNC debate, says party communications strategist Jim Mulhall - it's easy to see why candidates fly out of their way for the free exposure.
Furthermore, the numbers that really matter now are not the national ones, but those out of Iowa and New Hampshire, and in those states, the voters are paying close attention, including watching debates, says New Hampshire-based independent pollster Dick Bennett.
"People will make comments about things they've heard in debates without being asked," says Mr. Bennett, who runs American Research Group polling. "The debates, I think, have only really reinforced what [people] have seen about the candidates."
Dean, says Bennett, talks about the future, and that's what people in New Hampshire want to hear about. Gephardt and Kerry talk about the past - about what they've done in all their years in Congress - and that's a mistake, says Bennett.