Two old sayings are colliding in the presidential campaign, and there’s some truth to both of them. Politics is dirty. Midwesterners are nice.

That’s why the presidential candidates avoided attacking each other in crucial Iowa debates this week, even though they are in a no-holds-barred fight behind the scenes. They feared they would only hurt themselves if they were too harsh in public just three weeks before the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses.

“They were Iowa nice,” said Gordon Fischer, former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and a Barack Obama supporter. “In a multi-candidate field, one candidate attacking another candidate may turn people off to both those candidates. Historically, that’s what we’ve seen in Iowa.”

All the campaigns are mindful of the so-called “murder-suicide” of the 2004 Democratic race in Iowa. Polls had Howard Dean with a lead, followed by Dick Gephardt. Gephardt went on the attack against Dean, and both candidates saw their standing plummet. John Kerry and John Edwards surged past them.

“The Iowa caucuses can be dynamic and change dramatically in the last several weeks as we saw in 2004,” said Erik Smith, who was a top adviser to Gephardt. “Candidates are clearly balancing their desire to stand out from the field with the reality that one small misstep could be fatal.”

Hence the polite debates. Obama even jumped in at one point during Thursday’s Democratic version to defend rival Joe Biden over a question about whether Biden has a problem with minorities.

“Everyone was waiting to see who would throw the first punch, but no one ever did,” said Democratic adviser Steve McMahon. “If you’ve ever been to a football game where neither team scored, you experienced what it was like at this debate.”

Like the Republicans a day earlier, the Democrats used their time to recite well-rehearsed lines from their stump speeches — and to pander to the state of Iowa.

Chris Dodd noted that the cost of attending the University of Iowa had risen 147 percent in the past six or seven years. Obama, addressing energy issues, squeezed in a reference to a new wind turbine manufacturing plant in Keokuk with 400 jobs. Biden said his first trip to Iowa was a generation ago, when former Sen. John Culver ran in 1974. Biden didn’t say so, but Culver’s son, Chet, is the current governor, neutral in the race for the party’s presidential nomination.

Hillary Rodham Clinton noted that the typical Iowa family’s income rose $7,000 during the 1990s, when her husband was president. Edwards mentioned an Iowan by name who lost his job when the Maytag plant in Newton closed.

Across 90 minutes, the fierce competition between the Iowa front-runners shone through briefly — but good-naturedly — when Obama was asked how he could offer a new type of foreign policy since several of his advisers once worked for President Clinton.

Hillary Clinton laughed out loud at that, and said with a smile, “I’m looking forward to hearing that.”

Obama, also smiling, waited for the laughter to die down before saying, “Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.”

Clinton took a subtle shot at Obama’s campaign of hope when she said, “Some believe you get change by demanding it, some believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change.”

Though she didn’t mention Obama’s name, Clinton adviser and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack pointed to the line as the most important distinction of the debate.

“Nobody likes personal attacks. No, no, no,” Vilsack said. But he said Iowans want to hear about contrasts, and he made them in starker terms than Clinton did during the debate.

“Senator Obama said, `I’m for virtual universal health care,'” Vilsack said. “I don’t know — if I have cancer, do I have virtual cancer? Do I have virtual health care?”

The idea is that an adviser won’t turn voters off with negativity the way the candidate could. But an adviser can go so far that the candidate has to publicly distance himself or herself.

Bill Shaheen, a Clinton national co-chairman in New Hampshire, resigned shortly after the debate following an uproar over his suggestion that Obama’s admission of teenage drug use could make it hard for him to win the presidency. Clinton apologized privately to her Senate colleague and campaign foe.


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