Someone forgot the tenth podium. On a crowded stage at the University of New Hampshire Tuesday night, all nine Democratic presidential candidates vied to distinguish their voices in this, the last debate of 2003. But it was the echo from Al Gore's bold endorsement of Howard Dean hours earlier that reverberated loudest, transforming the contest into a referendum on relevancy. For his opponents, the question is no longer "Who can stop Bush?" but "Who can stop Dean?"
His opponents balked at the notion that Dean had been anointed Democratic standard-bearer. And they bristled at co-moderator Ted Koppel's opening remarks, which isolated Dean above his competitors. Perhaps in response, the field plunged into policy, and generally refrained from personal barbs. Still, responses were clearly calculated for political survival, as eight candidates faced the suddenly urgent need to establish a rationale for continuing their campaigns.
"It was kind of hard to hear the debate with the fat lady singing in the background," says David Menefee-Libey, an associate professor of politics at Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif. "[Dean's] role in the presidential field is now completely different from that of any other candidate."
Indeed, by cementing Dean's status as front-runner, Gore enables the former Vermont governor to serve as spokesman for Democrats, Mr. Menefee-Libey says. It also grooms Dean to be fundraiser-in-chief for Democratic candidates nationwide.
Dean's transformation from maverick outsider to establishment powerhouse, of course, does not assure him big victories in key primary contests. In fact, by solidifying his front-runner status, Dean may allow his rivals to gain momentum by exceeding expectations in New Hampshire, where he currently enjoys a wide lead in polls. Bill Clinton did just this in 1992, bouncing back from scandal to second in the Granite State primary, and using the ensuing momentum to capture the nomination.
John Edwards would like to reprise that role, and he sought to distinguish himself the way Clinton did: as a Southern outsider. "I've spent my whole life fighting special interests," he said, arguing that only he had the credibility to take on the powerful lobbyists in Washington who he claims prevent real reform. But his continual emphasis on his unique outside-the-Beltway qualifications left some observers flat.
"He sang one note: I'm an outsider, I'm against lobbyists," says Edward Haley, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "He passed up the chance to show himself as a full candidate, as someone with a broader horizon. I don't know if it's too early to run for the vice presidency, but you couldn't help but see his responses in that light."
"Edwards was the most disappointing of them all," says Allan Louden, Director of Debate at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Only Dick Gephardt managed to make a solid case for his viability, Mr. Louden says. "Gephardt talked about why he could win "red" states. The rest ... were not terribly successful in establishing a reason [for their continued candidacy]."
"Don't count Gephardt out," says Mr. Haley. "He came through strong theoretically, personally. People will remember what he had to say."
Yet even as his chief rivals - John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, Wesley Clark, and Joe Lieberman - claw for traction, there is a growing sense that Dean's most formidable foe is himself.
"Only Dean can do something to harm himself," says admitted Dean supporter David Loebsack, a professor of political science at Cornell College, in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.
Dean kept a decidedly low profile in Tuesday's debate, striving for modesty over applause. The other candidates forbore from piling attacks on him, opting instead to promote their own campaigns more vigorously.
Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton were especially assertive in the face of not-so-subtle suggestions from moderator Mr. Koppel that their campaigns were doomed to irrelevancy. Mr. Kucinich upbraided ABC's Nightline anchor for the insulting questions, and won the night's biggest cheers from the UNH audience for his witty and earnest remarks.
By being so unremarkable, Dean may have actually emerged victorious. "Dean stayed below the threshold of being observed and he simply sounded reasonable," says Louden. "Dean was the winner by not winning."
As they enter the pre-primary homestretch, the Democratic field must either change tactics or hope that Dean stumbles. Given the front-loaded primary season, candidates are already looking beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, moving political resources to other contests, notes Bruce Gronbeck, Director of the University of Iowa Center on Media Studies and Political Culture. And they must make a move soon. "They have to get in now some pretty decisive punches that will allow them to distinguish one from the other," he says.
Decisive punches may not necessarily involve gloves-off jabs at Dean so much as lifting campaign messages above stump speeches and stereotypes. Tuesday night showed neither tactic. "I was struck by how little the other candidates were able to separate themselves from their political stump speaking," says Louden. "I anticipated that they were going to attack Dean much more than they did."
So far, relentless attacks on Dean in Iowa and elsewhere have failed to halt his popularity. But there's no evidence that the field is giving up the fight. Joe Lieberman, for instance, said his former running mate's endorsement had actually energized him. "I am more determined than ever," he said.
Even Dean backers acknowledge that serious competition remains. "This is far from over," says Mr. Loebsack.