By Richard S. Dunham
If it were a TV series, it would have been canceled for low ratings. But despite the small audiences, the Democratic Presidential debates were important for the nine remaining candidates. The five party-organized, nationally televised encounters gave the would-be leaders of the Free World a chance to score rhetorical points and test-market new campaign themes before a small but influential collection of operatives and opinion-leaders. And in the eyes of one veteran debate-watcher, there are a few awards and barbs to hand out. Here's how the candidates stack up:
King of the Hill: Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. At the beginning of the debate series, Dean was just one of the gang. That has changed as he has become the focus of attacks from the back-in-the-pack brigade: The Pundit Elite has bestowed the front-runner's mantle on him -- and the others want to steal it away. Being the target seems to have increased the diminutive Vermonter's stature. As they say, it's better to be attacked than to be ignored.
Toughest Attacker: Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. The 2000 Vice-Presidential nominee said if Dean were elected, the "Bush recession" would be followed by the "Dean depression" because of the Vermonter's get-tough talk on trade. Dean's team doesn't seem to be too upset about being skewered by the most conservative candidate in the field. "When he attacks us, we tend to have a lot more people sign up [to volunteer] for us," says Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi. Still, you can expect the Republican attack machine to recycle Lieberman's anti-Dean taunts next fall -- at least the "Dean depression" part of it.
Motherhood and Apple Pie Award: Former NATO commander Wes Clark. The newest Democratic hopeful would make a fine character in a Joseph Heller novel. Call him General General. His answers in the debates tend to be very general. In the Detroit encounter, he dodged a question from moderator Gwen Ifill about when and how he would balance the budget. Often, it's hard to argue with him. He's for education, health care, fiscal responsibility, a strong defense, leadership, and patriotism. How does that translate into policies? Stay tuned.
The Comeback Kid: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. He entered the campaign with a reputation as a superb debater, which he earned during his spectacular verbal duels with then-Governor William Weld during the fiercely contested 1994 Senate campaign. But his performances in the early debates were unexceptional. Kerry didn't look particularly Presidential and didn't stand out from the pack.
In the Detroit debate, however, he showed a wry sense of humor and an ability to articulate pithy criticisms of his foes. Responding to a charge that he was standoffish, he quipped, "Wait 'til you see my video: Kerry Gone Wild." He has a way to go before he's ready for Saturday Night Live, but the good news for Kerry backers is that he appears to be on the right track.
Most Disciplined Performer: Missouri Representative Dick Gephardt. George W. Bush is a miserable failure -- that's the former House Majority (and Minority) Leader's message. If you missed it the first time he said it, he'll tell you again. Failed on the economy. Failed in Iraq. Failed on the budget. And, by the way, "I've got a health-care plan to get everybody covered," as he repeated for the umpteenth time at the Detroit debate. The media horde is tired of hearing Gephardt's act. But it gets enthusiastic applause each time he performs.
Top Quipster: New York community activist Al Sharpton. He invariably comes up with a funny line to defuse a tense situation. The liberal minister is obviously the most accomplished orator in the pack. His rhetoric can be soaring or searing. It's just that everybody knows that he's not going to win the nomination. The only question is how many delegates he can accumulate along the way.
Top Space Cadet: Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich. He's so far out on the left wing that he's flying solo. He's anti-war, anti-trade-agreement, anti-corporate, and very, very angry. He wants to create a Cabinet-level Dept. of Peace as a "central organizing principle" of American society. His campaign slogan could be: Kucinich, Because Dean Isn't Liberal Enough. His rants often get applause from the partisan, liberal audiences at the debates. But he's running dead last in the polls, now that Florida Senator Bob Graham has pulled out of the race.
Fantasyland Award: Former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun is running at between zero and 1% in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two Presidential contests of 2004. Asked about her lack of support during the Detroit debate, she responded, "We're doing very well in the polls, as you know." In some alternate universe, maybe.
Best Debate: The CNBC/Wall Street Journal event in New York. It was focused and substantive. The panel of questioners was disciplined and tried mightily to get beyond the sound bites. More often than not, it succeeded.
Worst Debate: The Congressional Black Caucus/Fox News Channel debate in Baltimore. It got out of control early and never recovered. The panelists couldn't rein in the candidates, who often repeated their stump-speech attacks on Bush. It didn't help that the debate was repeatedly interrupted by supporters of perennial fringe candidate Lyndon La Rouche.
Of course, these Democratic debates are just a warmup to the real show: the face-off between the survivor of the Demo-primaries and President Bush next fall. By that time, the Democratic nominee will surely be battle-tested -- and battle-scarred.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Beth Belton