Democrats playing it safe in first presidential debate

Eight hopefuls attacked President Bush and the Iraq war, not each other.

Anyone watching for fireworks or zingers Thursday night in the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2008 campaign will have been disappointed. There were moments of humor – such as Joe Biden's one-word response when asked if he had "the discipline to be president," given his propensity for gaffes and verbosity. "Yes," the Delaware senator replied definitively, then pausing for effect, to audience laughter.

And there was a moment or two of suspense. When former Sen. John Edwards was asked whom he considered his "moral leader," he hesitated for a few uncomfortable seconds, then recovered and spoke of his Lord, his wife, and his father.

But there were no attempts at knockout punches; the basic shape of the Democratic field did not change at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, the historically black university that played host to the forum of eight presidential hopefuls. It was almost as if the major candidates had agreed in advance to play it safe, play it polite, and train their sights on the one political figure and issue they could all agree deserved scorn: President Bush and the war in Iraq that he initiated four years ago.

Even when given the opportunity to criticize Rudy Giuliani, who leads in polls of Republican voters for their party's presidential nomination, the candidates opted to focus on the issues. NBC TV host Brian Williams raised Mr. Giuliani's recent comment that "America will be safer with a Republican president," and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton focused on the nation's post-9/11 response, not the man who was New York's mayor during the attacks. She said Giuliani's remark reflected a "myth" that she hopes can be put to rest, and spoke of actions she says the administration has failed to take since 9/11.

"You know, we haven't secured our borders, our ports, our mass-transit systems," Senator Clinton said. "You can go across this country and see so much that has not been done."

In this early phase of the race – with more than a year and a half before the November 2008 general election – it is smart of the Democrats not to appear concerned about any of the potential GOP nominees, analysts say.

"You don't want to tip off the opposition that you're worried about one of their candidates," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

The debate came just hours after the Democratic-led Senate approved a bill 51-46 to fund the Iraq war and set a timetable for withdrawal. Mr. Bush is expected to veto the bill early next week, and leaders of both parties are already discussing alternatives that would fund the war but not give the president carte blanche in his handling of it. The day of partisan wrangling segued into an evening of Democratic comity, punctuated by jabs from fringe candidate Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska. (At one point, he suggested Congress pass a law to make it a felony for the US to stay in Iraq.) Dennis Kucinich also solidified his position on the edge of the field when Mr. Williams asked the group if any other candidates supported the effort by the Ohio congressman to impeach Vice President Cheney. No hands went up.

Thursday's debate was an opportunity for second-tier candidates – such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson – to capture attention and shake up the field, but that did not appear to happen. Mr. Richardson, former US ambassador to the United Nations and the only governor on the stage, did not come out with any memorable lines. In televised post-debate comments, he noted that he does not have a big team of advisers – the kind of people who could help him craft sound bites.

The most-watched rivalry of the evening – that between frontrunner Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is second in Democratic polls – also did not produce much that was memorable, as the two sought to keep the focus on Bush rather than their own differences. Former vice presidential candidate John Edwards of North Carolina, third in the polls among Democrats, indirectly criticized Clinton when asked if he was referring to her when he once said that the nation needs a leader "who will tell the truth when they made a mistake." He replied, "No, I think that's a question for the conscience of anybody who voted for this war."

As a senator, Mr. Edwards had voted to authorize US military action in Iraq in 2002, but later apologized. To the chagrin of antiwar activists, Clinton has avoided the "M" word – mistake – and on Thursday stuck with her standard reply on her own "yes" vote in 2002: "It was a sincere vote based on the information available to me. And I've said many times that if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way."

Thursday's debate marked the first in a series of forums featuring the presidential candidates of both major parties. For the Democrats, there are already 11 more news-media-sponsored debates scheduled between now and Jan. 31, not including the six the Democratic National Committee will sponsor. For the Republicans, the first debate will take place next Thursday at the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. After that, at least 11 more GOP debates are scheduled.

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