Are media outlets biased against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton due to her gender? It’s an open question and one I’m not prepared to answer. But Tuesday night’s debate in Cleveland certainly blew open some angles for examination.

First, there’s the time question: Who got more of it? According to The New York Times Web site’s Democratic debate analysis page, Clinton spoke for 30:43 while Sen. Barack Obama spoke for 38:17 (the moderators spoke for 16 minutes). So Obama was allowed some 25 percent more critical time on-camera.

Then there’s the question of how much file video was used of each candidate — or, more specifically, against each candidate. For Clinton, the tally was 56 seconds; for Obama, it was 22. Each was asked to explain past statements he or she had made after being confronted with videotaped proof of the claims.

For Clinton, NBC moderators launched the debate by showing two contrasting clips. In the first, she was being exceedingly gracious toward Obama. In the second, she was ripping into him in a speech before an audience of her supporters, for misrepresenting her health-care plan in mailings to Ohio voters. The question: Which one represented her true feelings about Obama? She reacted mainly with aplomb to the unanticipated question. There was perhaps a glint of surprise in her eyes while she explained she made the comments during two different periods of the campaign. Her reaction changed, she said in essence, as events changed.

Obama was asked later in the debate to explain criticisms he leveled against Clinton for casting herself as “co-president” with her husband, while dodging blame for President Bill Clinton’s unpopular decisions, such as support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It is a question he’s been asked before.

The Clinton video and questions certainly had a much more obvious element of surprise or “gotcha” in them. The moderators could have posed tougher questions to Obama, but for whatever reason chose not to do so. One example: Why he took credit while campaigning in Iowa for passing an anti-nuclear bill that never passed the U.S. Senate.

The opening video-clip question to Clinton was followed up by asking her why a right-wing Web site that day had posted a picture of Obama dressed in African garb. The Web site claimed it obtained the picture from the Clinton campaign. Again, an element of surprise. She said she had no knowledge it came from her campaign.

The tough questions for Obama centered on praise he has received again and again from controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Obama has repeatedly denounced Farrakhan’s support, so it was not a question by which the moderators could have reasonably assumed he would be surprised. Obama was also allowed in response to go on and on extolling the virtues of the Jewish community and its support for his campaign.

I’m not prepared to take a stand on whether the two senators were treated similarly or dissimilarly. Clearly, Obama could cite examples of where he feels he was treated unfairly. But one has to wonder how big a factor gender bias is in Clinton’s move from front-runner to underdog. Of course she entered the race with so much baggage historians could spend centuries researching the issue without finding an answer.

A high-level Democratic strategist told me months ago that internal polls showed some groups of American voters were more likely to vote for an African-American man than a woman of any color. And one webzine this week ran an article likening the Obama-McCain race that now seems all but inevitable, to cop flicks that team a white man and a black man together to overcome a woman.

I was in the U.S. Capitol last week and noticed two portraits side by side. One was of Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, who in 1870 became the first directly elected black member of the House of Representatives. The other was of Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to the House, in 1917. That’s a 47-year gap. How prescient, I thought, that history appears to be repeating itself.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)

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