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Candidates Play Nice, Moderator Plays It Safe At Democratic Debate

03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following piece was produced by HuffPost's OffTheBus.

The Democrats debated today in a forum sponsored by the Des Moines Register -- and the 90 minutes were as subdued as they possibly could have been. In fact, it looked like the six candidates (Kucinich and Gravel were excluded, which is quite inexplicable considering Alan Keyes participated in the GOP debate yesterday) were vying for the endorsement of Senator Harkin and of the Des Moines Register more than they were trying to convince Iowa voters.

All in all, it was a good day for all the candidates. Hillary Clinton looked enthusiastic and ready to discuss substance, Edwards was back to his sunny 2004 image, and Obama was more poised and presidential than ever. But in a stunning reversal, it was Clinton who was trying to score points against her rivals rather than the other way around. As for the second-tier candidates, they got much more airtime than usual and used it well.

The debate is not likely to change many people's minds in that few contrasts were drawn, but every candidate was right on message and people's impressions are likely to be confirmed. Insofar as Clinton needed a strong showing that would slow down talk of her slide and vulnerabilities, she got it. Insofar as Obama wanted to avoid major showdowns that could reverse the storyline of his momentum, he got that, too. And insofar as Edwards's hope in the next three weeks is to capture the spirit of Iowa nice, he still has every chance of prevailing on January 3rd.

Few contrasts were drawn. The moderator made sure to avoid any confrontation by focusing her questions on issues on which there is little disagreement between candidates. Iraq, Iran and health care -- the three issues on which most of the campaign has been waged this fall -- were avoided. Instead, questions concentrated on education and the economy - worthwhile subjects - but ones on which candidates typically agree.

As a result, the candidates engaged in almost no back-and-forth, and the few direct exchanges were meant as amusing jokes. Most strikingly, there wasn't the need for a single rebuttal, as candidates never attacked each other by name. And the two-three actual digs were so subtle that it's doubtful that most voters got what they meant. The contrast could not have been more pronounced from the fireworks of the past two debates in Philadelphia and in Las Vegas.

John Edwards in particular has changed a lot. He was the one driving the anti-Clinton attacks in prior debates, but Clinton has lost her inevitability in the past month and she has tumbled down in a toss-up in all early states. Edwards no longer needs to get her down; instead, he focused on improving his own image and looking presidential and optimistic. He stayed true to his anti-lobbyist speech, but remember how much more pointed it sounded a few weeks back when he explicitly connected his argument to Clinton's ties to special interests. Three weeks from the caucuses, it's time for the sunny Edwards who promises to fight for every Iowan, the Edwards that surged in the last weeks of 2004.

Barack Obama stayed away even more from anything that could be interpreted as an attack. He has always been uncomfortable with staging big contrasts at these debates, and he is clearly happy to not have to do so now that momentum is on his side. He also got a nice moment when he jumped in on behalf of Joe Biden who was asked by the moderator whether he was uncomfortable talking about race after a number of controversial comments. After Biden delivered a good answer focusing on his record and all candidates offered support with a chorus of "here, here" Obama jumped in to offer a "testimony" on Biden's behalf which made him look like an authority on stage and a spokesperson for the candidates -- though it was also an uncomfortable moment to have Obama intervene as a sort of official voice for minorities when Biden had done very well on his own.

As for Clinton, it was clear from her posture how much has changed since the last debate. Instead of appearing calm and above the fray, she was eager to show her enthusiasm. She came across as determined, which is sure to help with viewers, but it was also obvious that Clinton was more nervous than usual. And she was the one who took digs at her opponents, including this statement that is bound to be quoted the most often in news accounts: "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."

The first part was meant as an attack against Edwards; the second against Obama. And this is in essence Clinton's argument: Everyone on this stage proposes change to you, but I am the only one who will work hard enough, who knows Washington well enough to deliver and to work hard. The combination of change and experience has been Clinton's argument all along. In the closing weeks of the campaign, she is seeking to close out her message more explicitly. Consider her second dig of the day, even more subtle, even more buried: She insisted that she would be ready to "move quickly" once she would get to the White House, a line she has used before to signal Obama's inexperience.

Because of the format of the debate, the second-tier candidate got much more airtime than usual as well -- and Richardson talked more than all other candidates. And he was the candidate who mentioned Iraq first in his opening statement (which was, paradoxically enough, way into the debate rather than at the beginning) by explaining that it is the most important issue in this election and rebelling at its exclusion from the debate. But he then inexplicably said nothing about Iraq at all when asked what he would do in his first year in office, whereas all the others made sure to say they would work on ending the war. This is where Richardson usually blasts his opponents for wanting to leave residual troops in, but he missed his cue.

Biden looked decidedly emotional -- and not just during the exchange over his racial insensitivity. The candidate known for his debate jokes was more somber than usual, and that made him less effective. As for Chris Dodd, his campaign theme was more obvious than ever: Restore the Constitution and the rule of law. All candidates said it, Chris Dodd made it crystal clear.

The first consequence of the debate could come on Sunday, when the Des Moines Register is expected to endorse a candidate. They supported Edwards in 2004, providing his candidacy with a major last-minute boost.