Howard Dean muddled through the Des Moines debate Sunday afternoon, largely unimpressive but deserving of some credit for standing up under a two-hour barrage from the other candidates.
Dean was the focus of attention for virtually the entire debate. During a round robin segment where the candidates were permitted to ask questions of one another, four of the six Dean opponents (Wesley Clark and Al Sharpton did not attend) directed their questions at him. Only one, Joe Lieberman, did any damage. Lieberman criticized Dean for not making his gubernatorial records available to the public, and compared his secrecy to George Bush and Dick Cheney. It was a spirited attack, and Dean's response was feeble: he said that he was awaiting a judge's finding on the matter. Lieberman also hit hard on Dean's statement that Saddam Hussein's capture did not make America any safer. And Lieberman and John Edwards hit Dean on middle-class tax cuts.
Some of the panelists also managed to land a few on Dean. David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register referred to his infamous comment that the U.S. could have captured Saddam six months ago, asking, "Are you saying that our soldiers are not working hard enough?" He gave viewers a brief glimpse of his fabled temper when he stated that he would balance the budget "in the sixth or seventh year of my administration," and the audience broke into laughter. Dean scowled, confused and angry, and for a moment it looked like he might blow. Here's hoping for next time.
Dean's opponents had little choice but to focus most of their attacks on him. But in doing so, they inadvertently solidified his status as the front-runner. He often seemed to be playing the role of president fielding questions at a hostile press conference. And he stood up fairly well under other assaults, particularly anything directed at him by the doomed John Kerry.
On Sunday Kerry stood like a tall piece of furniture on stage, making no impact on the proceedings. The viewer tended to forget he was there and, when he spoke, to tune him out. The only memorable thing he said in two hours was that terrorism was a law enforcement and intelligence problem, a position not immediately distinguishable from that of Dennis Kucinich.
Kerry went after Dean several times, but no matter what he tried, he could not land a punch. His best opportunity came in the candidates' round robin, when he cornered Dean on his statements about a fair trial for Osama bin Laden. Here it was-Kerry finally had Dean where he wanted him. But Dean delivered his best response of the debate, saying that if soldiers come upon bin Laden on the battlefield, they should "shoot to kill," but if they brought him in alive, the rule of law had to prevail. Kerry flailed back in rebuttal, but Dean had already danced away.
The other candidates always seem to do their best when Kerry challenges them. Maybe he should drop out and become a panelist.
When it came Dean's time to ask a question, he directed it to all of the candidates, asking them to raise their hands with him if they would support whoever won the Democratic nomination. It was a good bit of gamesmanship. All raised their hands, Kerry looking particularly stricken.
If anyone emerged from the debate enhanced, it might have been John Edwards. His performance was confident and articulate, managing to blend attack with magnanimity throughout. Edwards is polling fifth behind Kerry and Lieberman, but while they were obsessed with Dean at the top, Edwards shot most of his salvos at Gephardt, who is running a close second to Dean in Iowa. Given Edwards' poll position, this is probably a wise strategy, and he executed it well. He got the better of an exchange with Gephardt on free trade and, in the round robin, asked Gephardt to describe how he would "change the culture in Washington." It was a softball question, really, but Gephardt managed to muff it, beginning his response with the unfortunate phrase, "I have worked my entire career in politics…" If Edwards can wound Gephardt and take some of his support, he might be able to climb over Lieberman and Kerry into the third spot.
All in all, Lieberman's was the most impressive performance, but Lieberman is like the heads to Kerry's tails: he does everything right, Kerry does everything wrong, but neither one is selling. Gephardt is lucky if he held onto the support he had going in. Kucinich inhabits another dimension, and what an amusing world it is. One hopes his funding lasts a little longer. Moseley Braun was all warmth and maternal wisdom, not at all the type one associates with Nigerian dictators or campaign finance fraud.
As for Dean, he would seem to have little cause for concern. No one on that Iowa stage looks truly capable of taking from him what he already seems to own.
Then again, Al Sharpton wasn't there.