Lots of caution, few fireworks

042707debate2.jpgIt was less of a debate and more like a polite first date where the Democratic presidential candidates wanted to avoid any fast moves that risk turning off voters.

Front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were on the receiving end of a couple jabs, but the Democrats vying for the White House were downright complimentary, calling each other by their first names more like friends than rivals.

Offered a chance to rebut Obama on his plan for Iraq, Clinton said: “I think that what Barack said is right.” Asked who else on the stage could win against a Republican presidential candidate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said: “I’m looking at a bunch of winners right here, number one. And whoever wishes for Hillary is making a big mistake.”

Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd praised Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich for declaring his commitment to abortion rights. “What Dennis just said is extremely important,” Dodd said.

In short, they mostly pulled their punches and played it safe in their first debate.

“No runs, no hits, no errors,” said Democratic consultant Erik Smith. “Nobody made any significant mistake, but nobody distinguished themselves.”

After their Thursday night face-off at South Carolina State University, the candidates planned to hang out another day in the state that holds the important second primary next January. They all were to attend the state party’s biggest fundraiser Friday evening, then party together at a fish fry thrown by Rep. Jim Clyburn in a downtown Columbia parking garage.

The candidates spent most of their time in the 90-minute event broadcast live Thursday night on MSNBC explaining how they would lead the country and defending against their biggest criticisms.

Clinton said the fact that most of the public doesn’t like her is actually a form of flattery because it shows she stands up for what she believes in. Obama, questioned about whether he’s light on substance, laid out a three-point health care plan.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said even though he gets $400 hair cuts, he remembers what it was like when he was a kid and his father couldn’t afford to pay for the family to eat at a pricey restaurant. And when the notoriously long-winded Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware was asked if he had the discipline to be a player on the world stage, he replied with uncharacteristic brevity. “Yes,” was all he said to laughter in the hall with 850 viewers.

“The candidates did more testing of themselves and their own messages than against each other,” said Democratic consultant Stephanie Cutter. “Very few issues separated them, and very few moments distinguished them. As these debates go on, that will change.”

Their biggest target was President Bush. The candidates universally condemned the failures in Iraq and said they would bring troops home. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would end the war on his first day as president, coupled with diplomatic efforts to rebuild the country.

Edwards showed he was ready to challenge his rivals on the war from his first chance to speak in the debate. “Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they’ve voted the right way,” Edwards said. Dodd, Biden and Edwards also voted for the Iraq war resolution, although all three have said they regret it.

Clinton responded that she did as good a job as she could with the information she had at the time and said the focus now should be on how to get out of Iraq — which she said she would do as president if Bush doesn’t do it first. Even though she was the front-runner, it was the only time she was called on to rebut a challenge.

The differences between Clinton, Obama and Edwards were on display at one point when moderator Brian Williams set up a familiar scenario of two U.S. cities attacked simultaneous by al-Qaida and asked the three how they would respond. Edwards and Clinton said they would swiftly retaliate. Obama did not mention retribution for al-Qaida but instead spoke about how he would make sure there was an effective emergency response, correct intelligence and a conversation with global allies.

Obama later got a chance to talk about how seriously he takes threats to the United States, after liberal longshots Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel said Obama’s declaration that all options are on the table with Iran amounted to a threat of war.

Obama responded that it would be a mistake to initiate war with Iran, but the country’s nuclear programs pose a major threat to the United States. As Kucinich and Obama talked over one another, Gravel jumped in to complain that the United States has refused to disarm its nuclear weapons.

“Who the hell are we going to nuke?” Gravel shouted. “Tell me, Barack. Barack, who do you want to nuke?”

Obama smiled to cool the heated exchange. “I’m not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike, I promise,” he said to laughter from the crowd.

“Good,” Gravel said happily. “We’re safe then, for a while.”

–NEDRA PICKLER

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Nedra Pickler covers the Democratic presidential race for The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

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