On one point, they all tried to agree. The serious business of choosing a presidential candidate should not be reduced to TV entertainment. "This isn't a game show," said Joe Biden. "This isn't a football game. This isn't win or lose." (The Delaware senator must have missed the South Carolina State University marching band, which entertained the TV audience outside the Orangeburg, S.C. debate hall where the Democrats held their first debate of Campaign 2008.) Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman who rarely sees eye-to-eye with Biden, seconded the thought. "This isn't 'American Idol' here," he declared, to the relief of Hillary Clinton, whose singing voice is less robust than her Iraq policy.
Still, Kucinich had to concede that the evening was, on some level, a theatrical performance. "We're choosing a president," he explained helpfully. "And we have to look at the audition that occurred in 2003, when my good friends were called upon to make a decision and then made the wrong decision."
In the reality TV show that is the 2008 campaign, the Democratic field ganged up on one contender, with the clear intention of voting him off the island. Hillary Clinton may be the front runner in the polls, but Barack Obama was the only candidate to draw repeated fire from his rivals.
John Edwards, the former veep candidate, didn't mention Obama by name, but still made it clear who he was dissin'. "I think we have a responsibility, if you want to be president of the United States, to tell the American people what it is you want to do," he said about his health-care plan. "Rhetoric's not enough. High-falutin' language is not enough."
Sen. High-Falutin' of Illinois ignored the attack and spoke instead about the rise in black-infant mortality. (The audience wouldn't have been able to guess that the Obama campaign has yet to develop a health-care plan.) It wasn't so easy for Obama to avoid the firebombs from the two peaceniks on stage. Kucinich upbraided his rival for talking tough about the use of force against Iran. "I think that it's important for people to reflect on the real meaning of that, that you're setting the stage for another war," Kucinich said.
Obama replied that "it would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran." But that wasn't enough for the former Alaska senator Mike Gravel. "Who the hell are we going to nuke," he cried out. "Tell me, Barack. Barack, who do you want to nuke?" The Illinois senator, who has placed his opposition to the war at the heart of his campaign, could only smile. "I'm not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike, I promise."
Reality show or not, this wasn't a format that suited Obama. In town-hall settings, his earnest, slow delivery can sound thoughtful and candid. In a rapid-fire, 60-second TV debate, the same delivery sounded hesitant and unsure.
In the spin room outside the hall, Obama's aides insisted that their candidate had gotten across his message: politics needs to change, the country needs to come together. But inside the debate hall, the challenges of the 60-second sound bite seemed too ambitious.
Even for cable TV, a one-minute question-and-answer is brief. For eight presidential candidates, it was a shotgun experience that led to the candidates raising their hands on whether they kept a gun in their home. (Kucinich seemed unsure about what he had in his home, raising his hand several seconds after his rivals. Biden pointed out that he kept a shotgun, not a pistol.)
The experience was enough to unsettle the already unsettled Gravel. "I got to tell you, after standing up with them, some of these people frighten me," he said. "They frighten me." Moderator Brian Williams asked who seemed scariest. "Well, I would say the top-tier ones." said the bottom-tier candidate.
Perhaps realizing his mistake, Gravel later decided that he wasn't afraid of anyone outside the debate hall. When asked who were America's biggest enemies, he answered, "We have no important enemies … We spend more as a nation on defense than all the rest of the world put together. Who are we afraid of? Who are you afraid of, Brian? I'm not."
Williams was wise enough not to answer. But the candidates were clearly rusty enough at debating to fall into some holes of their own digging: Edwards explained that the hedge funds he counsels play a key role in health care in the United States. Obama failed to mention Israel as one of America's most important allies.
Fortunately there are some nine months of this game show left. That's more than enough time for the candidates to polish their answers before the voters get to decide who the real survivor will be.