In the final minute of Thursday night's televised Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware was asked by NBC's Brian Williams if he saw anybody on stage, aside possibly from himself, who could lead the party to victory next year.
Biden may be biased, but the overall impression from the first formal debate from this early-starting campaign is that the Democrats have a field of contenders that, by any historical measure, matches in quality any the party has offered in decades.
At least six of the eight declared candidates -- Biden, Clinton, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- showed themselves to be both substantive and direct in their responses. The other two, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska), provided a counterpoint of left-wing ideas that drew rebukes for a lack of seriousness from Biden and Obama. The challenges from the liberal flank allowed almost all the others to assert that, despite their criticisms of President Bush's Iraq policy, they are ready to use military force to retaliate against future terrorist attacks.
Few sharp jabs
The debate, aired nationally on MSNBC and carried by NBC stations in South Carolina, site of an early primary next winter, was fast-paced and civil, with few sharp jabs among the serious contenders.
In the segment on Iraq, all the candidates vowed to end U.S. military operations in short order -- with varying dates for withdrawal. Obama repeated his assertion that he opposed the war from the start, while Clinton -- still declining to apologize for her vote to authorize hostilities -- said that "I take responsibility" for her mistake in judgment. Edwards, who has apologized for taking the same stand as Clinton, passed up an invitation to criticize her directly for not having apologized.
There was similar unanimity of criticism of the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the recent ban on one form of abortion, with Clinton and her male opponents saying they "trust women" to make that decision for themselves, rather than have the court make it for them.
Clinton, who is leading in some early South Carolina polls, took advantage of a question about Republicans' supposed eagerness to run against her as an opportunity to argue that if they were not worried by her candidacy, they would not spend so much time attacking her. Appropriating a theme Obama has tried to make his own, she said she is the candidate of change who Republicans most fear.
As is his custom, Obama alternated outlines of specific policies on health care and other issues with broadly worded appeals for a new spirit of bipartisanship.
Edwards, who won South Carolina's 2004 primary, made a point of reminding viewers that this is his native state.
But for all the pre-primary attention focused on those three, it was by no means clear at the end of 90 minutes that they are any more effective advocates of the Democratic cause than Dodd, Richardson or Biden. The field seems both talented and evenly balanced.
Focus on vulnerable points
In one section, when Williams warned the candidates that he would focus on their vulnerable points, Edwards conceded that it had been a "mistake" to use campaign funds for a $400 haircut. And he struggled to explain how his work as counsel to a hedge fund was consistent with his emphasis on combating poverty. But Clinton came to his rescue by praising the New York-based investment firms as examples of the nation's entrepreneurial spirit.
In the same section, Richardson acknowledged that he had delayed calling for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's resignation because of his sympathy for a fellow Hispanic. And Obama brushed off, without a detailed explanation, his relationship with a Chicago political fundraiser who is facing criminal charges.
Dodd, who has been in office longer than any of the other candidates, said it is true that he has accepted money from interest groups but insisted that he is a longtime advocate of public financing of campaigns.
But it was Biden, a supposed long shot, who got the best of Williams. The moderator said that critics have condemned Biden's garrulousness and called him a "gaffe machine."
"Can you assure voters you have the discipline to be president?" he asked.
"Yes," Biden said, smiling, as the NBC newsman paused, waiting for more. As the silence continued, Williams shrugged, as if to concede he had been had.