In the cable television run-up to the first Democratic primary debate, no sports metaphor went unused: The night was the first game after spring training. It was the NBA playoffs. Obama was a Heisman Trophy winner and Hillary was a strong safety. I'm sure somewhere Parcheesi was mentioned. But after the debate was over, it was as if the game hadn't been played: The standings were unchanged.
The top candidates committed no major gaffes and offered no soaring performances. Obama, Clinton and Edwards didn't attack each other to draw blood as their forebears did in the first Democratic debate in 2004. The campaigns did not issue blanket rapid-response e-mails touting their candidate and knocking their opponents.
None of the top candidates wanted to take the first swing, said their advisers afterward in the spin room where they gathered to face the press swarm. (That tentativeness led to very mild spin; they mostly asked us what we thought.) Obama can't attack because that would go against his core message that he wants to change politics. (Plus, he doesn't need to attack; the momentum is with him.) Hillary can't get feisty because her negatives are already high enough. So, the two front-runners were solicitous of each other. "As Hillary was saying," said Obama. "I think that what Barack said is right," said Hillary. Fortunately, there was no air kissing.
Edwards, who has shown he'll take on the others, was also pretty quiet. He was given a chance to knock Hillary over her Iraq vote, and he only pressed her obliquely. He also made only a glancing dig at Obama as he answered a question about tax cuts: "Rhetoric's not enough. Highfalutin' language is not enough."
This isn't to say that nothing happened at the debate Thursday night in Orangeburg, S.C. Here are some observations:
Edwards emotes. The silliest question of the night got one of the best responses, which is why I'm still in favor of silly questions. Edwards turned a question about his $400 haircut into a story about his humble upbringings, in which he described having to leave a restaurant because his father, a mill worker who was in the audience, realized after looking at the menu that he couldn't afford it. Edwards said he was prosperous now and that he was running for president to allow everyone a shot at the same success. Candidates are always trying to talk about their biography, but it looks stilted in the format of a debate. Edwards was able to do so, repeat his core rationale for his candidacy, and beat back the hypocrisy charge that his advisers knew was one of their big challenges for the night. (He almost blew it when asked who he considered his moral leader by pausing long enough to hear the crickets, which suggested he might not have one, but he rescued himself nicely.)