You almost have to feel sorry for the Democratic presidential candidates. Not only did they have to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for 90 minutes of debating Sunday morning -- at 8 a.m. Central time, no less -- host and moderator George Stephanopoulos kicked off the whole debate by running through all the candidates' Iowa poll numbers.
Forget the fact that these polls are still all but meaningless (sure, the Iowa caucuses are creeping ever closer, but there are a few months left -- what happens if, say, Sen. Hillary Clinton has a "macaca moment" and Sen. Joe Biden gives CPR to a dying baby on live national television in the meantime? That'll screw up the polls a bit, eh?), poor Sen. Biden, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Chris Dodd and former Sen. Mike Gravel. Do they really need to be reminded, that early in the morning, that they're all at two points or less in the polls?
Some credit is due Stephanopoulos, though: He was doing his best to liven up Sunday's debate, which was held at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and nominally directed at voters in that earliest of primary states. Stephanopoulos tried again at several other junctures, at one point asking the candidates to give their take on Karl Rove's disparaging comments about Clinton and then trying to stir up a rift like the one that emerged on foreign policy between Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama after one recent debate. For the most part, no one took the bait.
But there were some interesting moments of division among the candidates, mostly on the war in Iraq. That was fitting -- the issue is, according to Stephanopoulos, the one that dominated the questions submitted by viewers from Iowa.
Debate on the Iraq question began from Biden's pre-debate assertions that he's the only candidate with a plan for Iraq, something New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson immediately disagreed with.
"I have a plan," Richardson said. "My plan is that, to end this war, we have to get all the troops out, all of them ... My plan has diplomacy, a tripartite entity within Iraq, a reconciliation among the three groups. I would have a division of oil revenues. I'd have an all-Muslim peacekeeping force, headed by the United Nations, a donor conference."
Richardson, who believes U.S. troops can be out of Iraq by December, disagreed with a faction made up of Biden, Clinton and Barack Obama, who called for what they described as a more careful approach that they said would take longer -- Biden said it would take a year to the day of the order -- and factor in the protection of U.S. civilians who would remain behind. Obama, who has opposed the war from the beginning, seems to think change isn't coming anytime soon.
"What all of us need to do over the next 16, 18 months is focus on putting pressure on Republicans to stop giving George Bush a blank check," Obama said, "because if we have to wait for 16, 18 months, that's going to make the situation that much worse.
"If we have not begun a withdrawal by the time I'm sworn into office, then the next task is to call together the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to give them the mission, which is to begin an orderly, phased withdrawal, so that we can begin the diplomacy that Joe and Bill and others are talking about."
These differences between the candidates are not, admittedly, all that new. Actually, Sen. John Edwards tried to play them down entirely, saying, "The differences between all of us are very small compared to the differences between us and the Republican candidates, who the best I can tell are George Bush on steroids. They're going to keep this war going as long as it can possibly go."
There was also some daylight between the candidates on the issue of education, though not much. For instance, every candidate who addressed it specifically agreed that No Child Left Behind, the signature education policy of the Bush administration, has to be reformed or scrapped altogether.
At issue to some degree, however, was the question of merit-based pay for teachers, which would be opposed by the teachers unions key to Democratic candidates. Only Gravel was willing to come out in favor of such a plan. Obama appeared to be cautiously for it, but only if a long series of conditions were met and teachers "buy in" to the idea instead of having it imposed upon them. Clinton said she favors incentive pay for schoolwide performance, and Richardson said he wants a minimum wage of $40,000 per year for teachers but doesn't favor merit-based pay. Biden supported an idea of a whole different order. Referring to his wife's 30-year career as a teacher, Biden said he wants to see college students paid to become teachers, and then paid as much as they would get if they went into a similar private field. "They'd get the same pay as an engineer gets to go in and work as a math teacher, as a science teacher, et cetera," Biden said.