When the nine declared Democratic candidates for president gathered together for the first debate of the pre-preseason on Saturday night in South Carolina, all the jostling and positioning produced little in the way of new information. And it yielded no moments of truth. Not that the wannabes were hawking only spin. But there was not a single breakthrough maneuver, in which a candidate says something or takes a position that commands extra attention. The nine stayed chained to their respective scripts. Which meant there was less engagement among them and more of what parents of toddlers call side-by-side play. The large size of the field (which may yet expand) and the discipline of the participants (each of whom, after all, was there to convey the message he or she has deemed will bring them closer to the nomination) limited the debate elements of the event. Anyone hoping that the clash of the candidates will–in a creation-through-conflict process–lead to a killer Democratic message could not have been too encouraged by this outing.

The South Carolina get-together showed that each of the nine have plotted out their dance steps carefully and want to keep their feet on the preordained marks. A run-down of the characters:

* Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The stately, most presidential-in-manner one. He invokes why-not idealism while trying to convey tough-mindedness. It’s the old Robert Kennedy play–and this JFK (Forbes is his middle name) made sure to cite RFK in the debate.

* Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The hawk who voted for both Gulf Wars and wrote the homeland security bill. He claims to be Mr. Electable, the only one who can match Bush as the protector-in-chief and then whup him on economic matters.

* Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. The fresh-faced populist who only seeks the presidency so he can fight for “regular people.” With just four years in the Senate, he might be light in experience, but he possesses the inspiring qualities of leadership.

* Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri. The old warhorse with new ideas, most notably a comprehensive healthcare plan. You want to talk “working family” policy? He can talk “working family” policy.

* Former Governor Howard Dean of Vermont. The passionate realist, the doctor-and-governor who knows how to make systems work, but who realizes the limits of what is possible. Still, he claims to be the Democrats’ Democrat and wants his party to kick Bush in the teeth on taxes, healthcare, homeland security, education, and foreign policy.

*Senator Bob Graham of Florida. The centrist with experience who wants a real war on terrorism. So much so he voted against the Iraq war authorization because he believed Bush was not serious about blasting (anti-Israel) terrorist groups in other countries.

* Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. The progressive rebel-and-visionary peacenik who decries a corporate-dominated America where NAFTA and the Patriot Act rule. He’s a sharp-toned crusader fighting for the nation’s soul and calling for followers to join him in “taking back America.”

* Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun. The barrier-breaker. That’s about it. Progressive across the board and a lifetime pioneer.

* The Reverend Al Sharpton. The Jesse Jackson stand-in/organizer provocateur who calls on the party to be true to its ideals and to boldly expand constitutional rights to include the right to vote, the right to healthcare, the right to quality education. He doesn’t devote much time to pitching himself on the basis of character or personal history.

In the months ahead, the candidates will follow (and tinker with) strategies to convey these nine personas to Democratic voters. In South Carolina, there were more exchanges that revealed the limits of the candidates than provided Democrats cause to cheer. Kerry and Dean continued their tiff. With the two Yankees running close in New Hampshire polls, Kerry recently swiped at Dean for saying, “We have to take a different approach [to diplomacy]. We won’t always have the strongest military.” Dean clearly meant, hey, we’re not going to be top dog forever, and we ought to keep that in mind as we use our unmatched military power these days. But Kerry’s campaign attacked the comment as a full-fledged Dean plan to weaken the US military.

In South Carolina, Kerry wouldn’t let go of this bone. “I believe,” he said of Dean, “that anybody who thinks that they have to prepare for the day that we’re not the strongest is preparing for a day when we have serious problems.” He was bayoneting a straw man to position himself as a strong-on-security candidate. Coming from the stately frontrunner–who boasts years of foreign policy experience and a solid combat record–this assault seemed even more of a cheap (and trivial) shot. As for the war itself, Kerry characterized his nuanced position on the war: “I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity, but I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him.” Was Kerry trying “to have it both ways?” moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Dean. The ex-governor, who so far in the race has been the most confrontational candidate, declined to take a poke. Instead he noted that the Iraq war was “the wrong war at the wrong time.” But he assailed Bush’s “new policy of preventive war.” Actually, the commonly-accepted term is preemptive. Dean, though, kept calling it “preventive” throughout the debate. To some, preventive war probably sounds positive (as if a nation is indeed thwarting an action that is definitely coming).This was probably no more than a minor slip-up, but it reinforced a problem Dean has demonstrated previously. When he discusses foreign policy–and when he has taken clear-cut stances–he does not always speak reassuringly. My theory: foreign policy is hard (especially when you are opposing a popular war), and it takes a while to learn how to talk the talk.

Lieberman pushed his support for the war as his number-one credential. The day before the debate, as he was campaigning in South Carolina, Lieberman boasted he was the most “conservative” candidate in the race. At the debate, he did not use the C-word. But he argued he was the field’s fiercest–in terms of going after both Saddam Hussein and Hollywood. His mantra: “No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defense, and this war was a test of that.” (Lieberman also noted he was no fan of licensing or registering firearms, even though his 2000 ticket mate, Al Gore, had proposed licensing new handguns. “The American citizens have a right to own firearms,” he said. “It is no more unlimited than any other right that we have.”)

On Iraq, Edwards, who like Lieberman and Gephardt fully endorsed Bush’s war, took a different tack than Lieberman. The important issue now, he said, was “what will [Bush] do in the post-Saddam Iraq? Will he in fact engage the international community in the reconstruction effort?” Edwards was the only candidate who raised these sorts of questions at length, almost as if preparing to be the I-supported-the-war-but-worried-Bush-would-screw-up-in-Iraq candidate. That may turn out to be a politically smart position.

Edwards also repeatedly vowed he would stand up to “corporate America.” He mentioned his distaste for corporate America more often than he reminded the audience he had grown up in a South Carolina mill town. Yet he never explained precisely how he would oppose big business. He was offering a details-less opposition. The most specific he got was when he took a shot at Gephardt’s healthcare plan, which would compel companies to provide insurance to workers and provide businesses tax credits to cover the costs. Edwards criticized the plan for “taking almost a trillion dollars out of the pockets of working families…[and] giving it to the biggest corporations in America….It feels like saying, you’re in good hands with Enron.” Doctor Dean took issue with Edwards’ characterization of Gephardt’s plan, but pushed his own, smaller plan.

When Gephardt unveiled his healthcare proposal, he laid down a marker as the top-tier candidate with the boldest policy initiative. He signaled he was going to try to shape the race with his policy ideas and pressure other candidates to address them. (During the South Carolina debate, he also referred to his proposals to establish a national teachers’ corps and a 10-year Apollo-like program to achieve energy independence.) Yet his defense of his healthcare program needed some work. He did not effectively counter Edwards’ parry. Anyone watching could have been excused for wondering who was right. This illustrated the perils of basing a campaign on one or more comprehensive policy initiatives concerning important but complicated topics. A candidate who choses such a course has to be able to discuss this stuff with gusto and with absolute clarity–especially since any elaborate plan is easy to pick apart. Remember Hillarycare? Gephardt’s decision to release an extensive healthcare plan was encouraging for anyone who wants to see Big Ideas play a role in the 2004 campaign. His less-than-adequate defense of it in South Carolina was less heartening.

On healthcare, Kucinich spoke in the clearest tones. “Get the profit out of health care,” he said more than once. And he adhered to a down-the-line progressive message: jobs for all, restrain out-of-control military spending, national health insurance (paid for by a new payroll tax), repeal the Patriot Act, repeal NAFTA, “cancel” the World Trade Organization. (Can the WTO be canceled?) His message was firm and forceful, but came across as a bit abrasive, unlikely to appeal to those not already fully in his camp. Kucinich has not yet shown the ability to campaign as a happy warrior. American voters seem to like their doom-and-gloom candidates upbeat. The last two presidential candidates able to exploit hard times successfully were Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Graham left not much of an imprint. In what must have been a troubling sign for his campaign, during the period in which every candidate could ask another contender a question, four of the nine directed their queries at Graham–indicating they believed he posed little threat. None of the candidates asked a question of Kerry or Dean.

Moseley Braun was not all that provocative. Her best moment came when she asked Edwards, who had previously noted his concern for civil liberties, whether he would vote to repeal the Patriot Act, which he had voted for. Edwards squirmed and, like a good trial attorney, squeezed a lemon into lemonade: “”I think the problem with the Patriot Act is not the law itself. It’s the way it’s being administered…by the attorney general of the United States.” (Credit Edwards with a point for being the only leading candidate to whack Ashcroft, a favorite villain of Democratic voters.)

Sharpton was no bombthrower and interacted well with others. His maintained his best-lines monopoly but there were fewer Sharptonisms than in previous appearances. “I call George Bush’s tax breaks, even the small amounts that he gives working-class people–it’s like Jim Jones giving Kool-Aid,” he said. “It tastes good, but it will kill you.”

No one won. No one lost. No one soared. No one flopped. It was akin to a test run–a beta release of a presidential debate. At this point, more Americans can probably name Laci Peterson’s husband than any Democratic candidate. But the event did show how the aspirants have all locked into their campaign characters, and how difficult it will be for any of them to stand out any time soon.