The Democrats have performed in well over a dozen primary debates. They began way back in the forgotten pre-Janet era of 2003. The Sunday morning semi-slugfest in Gotham was probably the last one.
What's foremost in my mind at the end of this long theatrical run is a question: When will we next see John Edwards debate?
Will it be in October, in a face-off with Dick Cheney?
Will it be in 2008, in a prime-time primary crash with Hillary Clinton?
Or, if Kerry doesn't choose Edwards as his veep and does beat Bush, will we have seen the last of John Edwards on the presidential stage?
Edwards is obviously one his party's few rock stars. In my estimation, he has helped John Kerry immeasurably. He reintroduced niceness, good manners and "positive" campaigning as strengths, not weaknesses in electioneering. His talk of "two Americas" and consistent attention to issues of poverty provided rhetorical and substantive ammunition for Kerry to swipe and use against Bush. He raised Kerry's game.
By staying in the race, Edwards kept Kerry higher up on front pages and evening news lineups than he would have been otherwise. By staying positive and respectful, he didn't tear down Kerry before the general election. By waging such a skilled campaign, he made Kerry's win more impressive. Kerry beat two very different, very strong candidates: Howard Dean and John Edwards.
It appeared that the party gave Edwards a quiet blessing to carry on with his campaign even after Kerry's devastating raid on the Confederate states of Virginia and Tennessee on February 10. It now appears that the blessing will be withdrawn after Super Tuesday unless Edwards pulls off shockers, which will be measured as two victories minimum.
The feeling is that the ultimate nominee, Kerry, has to start spending money on general election television advertising and can no longer afford to squander scarce bucks on preordained primaries. The Bush campaign will commence its air war this week with a war chest, we're told, of around $175 million. Democrats want their nominee to inoculate himself and counter-attack now.
So we may be seeing the last of primary candidate Edwards. He's everyone's favorite V.P. choice. A new CBS News poll shows a Kerry-Edwards ticket is stronger in a hypothetical match-up against Bush-Cheney than Kerry alone is against Bush alone.
In Fantasy Politics, Edwards is also the big name in 2008 if the Democrats don't have an incumbent, along with Hillary. Edwards would face a interesting challenge in finding a platform for the next four years, something to keep his name in lights but that would add to his perceived gravitas and foreign policy weight.
The end of the debate season also forces me to revise two preconceived notions I brought to primaries.
Contrary to all my political and marketing instincts, I now think the abundance of formal debates has been good for the Democrats. All the arguing didn't diminish the field. Hanging around a bunch of losers didn't, as I expected, make the ultimate winner seem punier. Kerry became a stronger debater and candidate and certainly showed stamina and discipline. I'll always believe American elections are too long, by a factor of five at least, and that starting the debates in 2003 was nuts. But having so many debates did no harm and some good.
I've also overcome my extreme distaste for putting fringe candidates and dead-enders like Sharpton and Kucinich on stage with the viable big boys. Barely. It is absurd to pretend these are somehow real candidates who are playing the same game as Edwards and Kerry. Treating them equally is, on most levels, kooky – like ignoring the pink elephant in the living room. But even in this last debate, both the humorous Sharpton and the nerdy, righteous Kucinich got off some good lines. Like Edwards, Dean and even Michael Moore, they road-tested material that Kerry can commandeer later in the campaign. Parties need some candidates without caution.
As for Edwards, the last debate reminds of the enduring and profound lyrics from the '70s girl group Three Degrees: "When will I see you again? When will we share precious moments?"
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer