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.