With the Al Gore endorsement earlier in the day solidifying Howard Dean's position at the front of the Democratic pack, the political script dictated that the debate be a series of scathing and even desperate attacks on him by his rivals. It didn't quite turn out that way, though; this forum was characterized both by the candidates' reluctance to discuss the Gore development and a sudden aversion by most of them to attack Dean.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who has been among the fiercest critics of Dean in past debates and on the campaign trail, consistently passed on opportunities to criticize the man who now holds a massive lead over him in the polls here in New Hampshire. Although he criticized Gore at the outset of the debate for endorsing Dean -- he said he was surprised by the decision, given Sen. Joe Lieberman's "loyalty" to Gore in the past -- Kerry demurred when asked directly whether Dean could beat Bush in the general election. And asked later about a statement Dean had made about not letting faith interfere with policy decisions, Kerry said he agreed "completely," going on to talk about the importance of separating church and state.
The exception to this dynamic was Lieberman himself who, as Gore's erstwhile running mate, was most visibly stung by his endorsement of a rival Democrat. He repeatedly argued that a Dean candidacy would be bad for the party, and cast the primary election as a contest between Clintonian centrism and ineffective liberalism. "This campaign for the Democratic nomination is fundamentally a referendum within our party about whether we're going to build on the Clinton transformation in our party in 1992 that reassured people we were strong on defense, we were fiscally responsible, we cared about values, we were interested in cutting taxes for the middle class and working with business to create jobs," he said. "Howard Dean -- and now Al Gore, I guess -- are on the wrong side of each of those issues."
Dean's response to this criticism from Lieberman -- and to other candidates who criticized Gore for the endorsement -- was an impassioned defense of his new ally, while simultaneously positioning himself as the new heir to the Clinton-Gore legacy. "If you guys are upset that Al Gore is endorsing me, attack me, don't attack Al Gore," he said. "We share a lot of values. We both believe that this earth is in environmental crisis because of what George Bush is doing. We both believe that middle-class people in America ought to be able to send their kids to college and get some help. We both believe that 3 million jobs lost is 3 million too many. And under the Clinton-Gore record, we had a whole lot better economy than we do right now."
The contrast between past debates, in which Dean was attacked from all sides, and this one, in which moderator Ted Koppel of ABC News took the most sustained criticism, was stark. One explanation for this is simply that the debate, sponsored by ABC and New Hampshire affiliate WMUR, presented a vital opportunity for the candidates to introduce themselves to the voters of New Hampshire just a few weeks before the primary. Another is that Dean's increasingly solid position -- especially with the newly announced support of Gore -- has forced a rethinking of his opponents' strategies.
"The race is shifting gears now and there really is a very intense battle underway to be the alternative candidate to Dean," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network. "All these candidates have to worry more about growing their numbers at the moment and less about catching Dean, so we may see a period of lots of positive ads and communication and fewer attacks."
Each time they were asked about the politics of the race, the candidates turned into scolds, saying that they wanted to talk less about polls, money and endorsements, and more about substantive issues. They repeatedly attacked Koppel for steering the discussion toward the Gore endorsement and other matters of "process," to broad applause from the audience. (Koppel joked that he had managed the seemingly impossible task of unifying the Democratic Party.)
Sen. John Edwards' reaction after the debate was typical: "We should have been focused much more on the problems people want to hear ideas about," he said. "But in order to get those ideas in tonight, you had to ram it into some question about some poll, or some endorsement."
Some of the liveliest policy discussion was on the subject of Iraq. Wesley Clark, who thinks the war was an unnecessary blunder, said, "An early exit means either retreat or defeat. Neither one is acceptable."
Lieberman, who supported the war but criticized the administration's handling of the aftermath, said, "We are going to win the war against terrorism only in the first instance by capturing and killing every terrorist we can find. In the longer term, we're going to win it by winning the larger war for the hearts and minds of people in the Islamic world, giving them an opportunity, helping them to live in freedom. George Bush cannot do that. I can and I will."
He also accused Dean of being inconsistent with his own positions on troop levels in Iraq and, alone among the candidates, was persistent in his criticism of Dean as candidate. "We will not win this election and we will not deserve to unless we not only have plans for getting our economy going, [but] present a candidate who can guarantee the American people that we will do a better job than George Bush in keeping them secure." Only Rep. Dennis Kucinich similarly criticized Dean directly -- but from a fairly lonely pole, insisting that all U.S. troops should be pulled from Iraq.
Dean, for his part, said that he believes the U.S. is now "stuck" in Iraq, and that pulling out of the unstable country could pose even greater security threat. He said the model for rebuilding should be Afghanistan, where an assemblage of local leaders drew up a constitution for a local state.
But however much the candidates may have wanted to change the subject, the story of the day was Gore. Just that morning, he had announced his endorsement of Dean and urged other Democrats to get onboard with him. "It is about all of us," Gore said, "and all of us need to get behind the strongest candidate."
But at the debate, Dean's opponents bridled at Gore's suggestion of the party unifying behind Dean, with Al Sharpton decrying it -- to loud applause from the audience -- as "boss-ism." And they consistently played down the importance of the endorsement with more than five weeks remaining before the Iowa caucuses.
Wesley Clark mocked the endorsement with a former Gore slogan, saying he thought "elections were supposed to be about the people, not the powerful."
In the spin room afterward, DNC chair Terry McAuliffe, who oversaw a rejiggering of the Democratic primary calendar with the specific intention of producing a quick winner, had this to say about Gore's suggestion: "Al Gore endorsing a candidate in the primaries is a very, very big deal." But, he said, "In fairness to the candidates, let's go through some contests ... I don't think anyone ought to get out of the race until we've had some votes cast."
And at the end of the night, even Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi -- who just a day earlier was reveling in the news of the big campaign announcement -- seemed to have had enough of the Gore speculation. "This was the whole myth of this debate," he said. "That somehow a campaign that grows to 515,000 people grows to 515,001 -- and a very important one -- that somehow that changes the nature of this campaign and the hundreds of thousands of people out there [who] defend Howard Dean and carry his banner across this country every day. It's crazy."
As for the seeming fall-off in attacks on Dean in the debate, he said, "I think a lot of it is that when people attacked us in the past, we had tended to get more energy going up, and more people contributing," he said. "It just didn't work."