The New Hampshire Democratic presidential debate was supposed to be the Super Bowl of the primary season face-offs.

It was–only in that it was long and dull and marked by uninspiring performances, which sadly is often what happens in the NFL championship match. Unfortunately, this event lacked interesting commercials.

As the two hours dragged by, many of the 400 journalists in the media watching room–a gymnasium on the campus of St. Anselm College–rolled their eyes and checked their watches. It was five days before the first primary of 2004, and expectations had been high. The surprising results in Iowa had injected additional drama into the New Hampshire contest. Could Dean, the heretofore Internet-fueled powerhouse of the race, recover from his third-place finish and the shriek heard around the world? Could John Kerry, the come-from-behind victor of Iowa, exploit his Midwest win and outperform the rest of the pack in his native New England? How would Wesley Clark, the born-recently Democrat who had skipped Iowa, fare against the battle-scarred veterans of the caucuses? Could John Edwards, the sunnier candidate, outshine his rivals?

Political journalists–myself included–thought this debate could be the decisive moment in a decisive contest.

We were wrong.

Several hours before the debate, I ran into a Clark adviser at a Manchester restaurant. What’s the General’s goal for tonight? I asked. “To do okay,” the Clark lieutenant deadpanned. “Seriously,” I replied. He countered, “I am being serious.”

It was as if all the candidates were aiming for the same bar: okayness. In part, that was due to the debate’s structure: four journalists asking questions of the candidates that permitted no give and take between the contenders. It was also due to what has become known as the Lesson of Iowa: going negative hurts. Few elbows were thrown. No spitballs were hurled. Candidates stuck to their stump speeches. Edwards noted that people are “hungry for change in America. They’re hungry for change in Washington, D.C. And the truth is, the truth is, that I’m somebody who’s been in Washington long enough to see what’s wrong with it and how it needs to be changed.” Kerry maintained he wanted to take on “special interests” and that he had national security credentials that would allow him to go toe-to-toe with Bush. Joseph Lieberman stressed his “values” and his enthusiastic support for the war in Iraq. Clark pushed his experience as an executive and professed his fealty to Democratic Party principles. Dennis Kucinich blasted the Nafta trade accord and insisted he was the most antiwar candidate, claiming his plan to end the U.S. occupation in Iraq could bring American troops home within 90 days and noting that Dean would let U.S. forces remain there perhaps for years.

Dean had the most to prove–or disprove. He tried to reposition himself as an ex-governor who has demonstrated the ability to get things done (such as expanding health care coverage to most Vermont residents and balancing the state’s budget) and who has the courage to tell inconvenient truths and stand up for principles even if they are unpopular (such as opposing the war and backing civil unions for gays and lesbians). He stayed in control. There was little fiery talk of taking back America with an insurgent campaign.

Policy differences among the candidates were not pronounced. There was disagreement on tax cuts. (Kerry was for middle-class tax cuts included in the Bush tax cuts package; Dean argued these tax cuts were bogus.) A few uncomfortable moments occurred. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings asked Al Sharpton about the Federal Reserve Board and his views on monetary policy. Sharpton replied with a rambling answer about the International Monetary Fund. (Even Sharpton was not his usual zinger-filled self. He only got off one good line the whole debate: “I wanted to say to Governor Dean, don’t be hard on yourself about hooting and hollering. If I had spent the money you did and got 18 percent, I’d still be in Iowa hooting and hollering.” But by Sharptonian standards, this was not Grade A material.) Edwards, the onetime superlawyer, botched a question about the Defense of Marriage Act, mischaracterizing it completely while stumbling through his reply.

But mostly the candidates met the Clark standard and did okay. No one came across as commanding or daring. No one produced a memorable moment. Kerry, who leads in the polls, did little to enhance or endanger his frontrunner status. It is doubtful that New Hampshire voters, who have been bombarded with campaign ads and saturated media coverage, learned a lot more about the seven alternatives. The most dramatic moment of the evening came before the debate when Kerry arrived and joined a parade organized by the firefighters union, which is supporting him. With a bagpipes and drums corps leading the way, Kerry, mobbed by fans, marched with several hundred pumped-up men down a hill, and they ran smack into a horde of students for Dean, who tried to stand their ground and slow the Kerry procession. Bodies collided, signs went flying. (Have you ever been crushed between a beefy cameraman and a beefy firefighter wearing a kilt and carrying a bass drum? I have.) This was the only excitement of the night. The firefighters and Kerry did make it past the Deaniacs. And, yes, I spotted a fair number of piercings.

The post-debate activity was hardly this thrilling. As is customary, reporters gathered in a designated “Spin Room” to hear what candidates and their surrogates had to say about the debate. Often these instant postmortems are lively, as campaigns push self-serving lines in a frantic effort to characterize the debate before reporters file their reports. Tonight was different. There was no need for spin. Nothing had happened during the debate that needed explaining, defending, or amplification. No campaign bothered attempting to argue that its man had won–or had even outscored anyone else.

One reporter asked Edwards to identify the “critical point” in the debate. He accurately replied, “I’m not sure there was a critical point.” Edwards did gripe that the format of the debate had prevented him from talking about “a lot of issues that affect people’s lives so voters could see what I would do.” I asked him to tell us what issues he had in mind. He replied, “What the country is hungry for is an optimistic, positive vision of hope.” And he went on to repeat his standard line that there are “two different Americas,” one where people have health care and win big under the tax system, one where people do not.

But, I pressed him, what specific issues should have been addressed. He responded by noting that he had proposed banning campaign contributions from lobbyists, implementing more extensive disclosure of lobbying activity, and ending the revolving door between government and lobbying firms. I gently reminded him that he had mentioned all of this during the debate. But he noted he had not had the chance to discuss his plan to improve public schools with bonus pay for teachers in tough school districts. And he repeated a concern he had raised during the debate: none of the candidates is talking about the 35 million Americans who live in poverty. More time in the debate, he noted, was devoted to discussing gay marriage than this troubling situation. “The debate may have been helpful for people to get a general impression of us,” he remarked. “But the substantive differences in our views was hard to tell.” Still, he added, “I was the candidate who presented an uplifting message of hope.”

If there was any interesting spin, it came from Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager. He came to the “Spin Room” with a mantra: the Governor showed that what is different about him is that he got results in Vermont and stood up when it was tough to do so. Trippi repeated that message to reporters over and over.

“Dean didn’t say a lot about his campaign as an insurgent movement,” I said to Trippi. He replied, “A lot of the focus is on him right now. And there are a lot of candidates who are talking about special interests and change.” Trippi noted that the reason Dean entered the race originally was that he “cares so much about health care.” Clearly, the Dean strategy of the moment is to present Dean not so much as the maverick assailing Washington–even if Dean still does say, “we want our country back”–but as a gutsy executive who has a record of accomplishment. “We have to establish what the campaign is really about,” Trippi said. “It’s about a guy who used to come to New Hampshire when no one knew his name, with brochures in his back pockets and talked about his real record on health care and balancing budgets and standing up when it’s not always popular to do so.” Trippi added, “I don’t think New Hampshire is going to let 15 seconds of videotape change that.” Perhaps. But for the Dean campaign now is the time to forget about the Dean movement and concentrate on Dean the man.

Can the Dean campaign pull off this transition? Why bother predicting when the answer will come soon enough? One less-than-encouraging sign for the Dean gang: Trippi was the last campaign personality to exit the “Spin Room.” By the time he left, most reporters had departed, many grumbling about the low-energy/low-impact debate. The room was close to empty. Trippi had stayed longer than aides from any of the other campaigns.

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