The Democratic debate: Staying away from controversies, candidates focus on issues

An hour into the debate, the candidates embarked on a thirty-second laughing session after a mix-up over whether Barack Obama was trying to aim a question directly to John Edwards. The moderators joined in, and everyone on stage looked relieved to be easing the tension of one of the campaign's most grueling weeks.

The previous debate held a few days before New Hampshire featured the clearest exposition yet of how candidates differed when it came to process. Despite a rocky start and some tense exchanges, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama laid out their vision for leadership. To Clinton's "Words are not action," Obama responded with his "Words do inspire."

Since then, the Democratic primary sank into a series of controversies over gender and race. The rhetoric on all sides was heating up in the past few days, with the candidates themselves coming in the fray to address allegations that comments by Senator Clinton and her surrogates had racist overtones.

Eager to turn the page, the candidates tonight did everything they could to focus on substantive issues. If the ABC debate of January 5th allowed viewers to get a clear sense of where candidates stood on process, tonight featured the most policy-oriented discussions we have seen in quite some time, and the candidates avoided high-profile clashes.

This is not the ideal recipe for fireworks and catchy headlines, but it was the only way for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- both of whom have a lot to lose in the recent polemics on race -- to move on. And it made for a debate that highlighted Democratic unity in the face of the Republican bickering that has taken place in recent debates.

The Las Vegas stage had been stripped down to its essentials. With Dennis Kucinich left out because of a last-minute decision by the Nevada Supreme Court, the only candidates on stage were the three heralded for most of the past year as the front-runners. And when moderators Brian Williams and Tim Russert launched the discussion with a question about race, it looked like the debate could soon degenerate in an all-out-brawl.

Speaking first, Hillary Clinton moved quickly to reject the growing nastiness as she explained that all the candidates on stage were fulfilling Martin Luther King's dream. "I know that Senator Obama and I share a very strong commitment to ensuring that this campaign is about us as individuals," she added, and soon got help by Obama's efforts to take the questions off the table. "Everybody here is committed to racial equality," Obama explained.

The moderators, however, remained faithful to Tim Russert's reputation for "gotcha" interviewing and were hoping to draw some blood tonight. They kept pushing the candidates on similar issues, by asking Obama, for example, to address allegations that his "you're likable enough" at the previous debate was a sexist remark or by implying that Clinton's attack on her rival could hurt the party come November.

It looked like they might have uncovered a sore point when Clinton was asked whether she disavowed BET founder Robert Johnson's obvious reference yesterday to Obama's teenage drug use (Johnson later explained that the youthful behavior he was referring to was the senator's days as a community organizer). Clinton responded that she believed Johnson's explanation of "what he thought he had said" and accepted him "on his word." Clinton's weak response would have seemed incendiary just a few days ago, but neither Obama nor Edwards picked up on it, unwilling as they were to continue discussing these issues.

And with that the debate moved on to discussing the economy, followed up by other policy-related questions. The mortgage crisis, Yucca Mountain and energy sources, poverty and ROTC came one after the other, and the candidates offered detailed answers that were focused on presenting a viable Democratic alternative to Republican governance than in crafting subtle shots that only a few pundits will notice.

In particular, the candidates kept taking aim at the Bush Administration. Clinton even went after some of the Republican presidential contenders by name, something Democrats rarely do at their debates. "Hillary was exactly right," Obama was heard saying after Clinton explained why minorities are bearing the lion's share of the country's economic crisis. And in one of the most remarkable moments of the debate, Clinton asked Obama whether he would be willing to co-sponsor a Senate bill with her that would require President Bush to get congressional ratification for any agreement he reaches with the Iraqi government. To her transparent attempt to leave as little room as possible between herself and Obama on the issue of Iraq, the Illinois Senator obliged and answered, "I think we can work together on this, Hillary."

In what the night's scenery painted as a three-way race, John Edwards emphasized some differences between the candidates, at least more so than the two others did. He started with his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq which he claimed was more ambitious than his rivals'. And when the opportunity came for him to ask a question to either of the other candidates, he turned to Obama and interrogated him about campaign finance, pointing out that Obama was the top recipient of donations from insurance and drug companies (a figure the Obama campaign disputes).

Yet, the night's dynamics did reveal two significant changes from prior encounters. The first is a shift that should help Hillary Clinton in the coming weeks. Her campaign has long been hoping that the media turns the spotlight on Obama and Edwards's records, and it has long argued that Clinton's front-runner status has led the press to give a free pass to her rivals. Tonight, the moderators went after past votes taken by Obama and Edwards's, something that rarely happens either on the trail or in these debates.

Obama was asked about his support for the 2005 energy bill, which Clinton voted against. And while Obama did a good job explaining that his vote in favor of the bill was due to its large investment in favor of clean energy, Clinton drove the point home by calling the legislation "Dick Cheney's bill." Meanwhile, Edwards got asked about his support for the bankruptcy bill of 2001 which he said he regretted (Clinton also faced the same question, but it seems fair to say she has grown more accustomed to answering questions about her past Senate votes). And Edwards was even more destabilized when the topic shifted to Yucca Mountain, when Clinton followed up on his diatribte against the nuclear waste project by pointing out, "You've voted for it twice, you didnt answer that part of the question."

The second development was a stunning reminder of how quickly smears can spread. In what had long remained a whispering campaign that few commentators have been willing to acknowledge, the allegation that Barack Obama is a Muslim candidate seeking to hide his true religion and who refuses to take the Pledge of Allegiance made its first appearance at a debate tonight when Brian Williams asked the Illinois Senator to address the issue. However uncomfortable the moment, these smears are now taking such proportions despite being debunked extensively and repeatedly that it is probably good that they be brought into the daylight. Rumors spread most quickly when they are left in obscurity, and this at least allowed Obama to remind viewers of simple truths like the fact that he often leads the Pledge of Allegiance in the Senate.

But in a night in which the candidates left empty rhetorical attacks at the door and the discussion was oriented towards substance, that moment was a sad reminder that the debate was just a short reprieve from nasty campaign warfare.