Democrats' Iowa Debate: No Fireworks

It had been a week of ugly between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama leading up to today's final Democratic presidential debate in Iowa before the state's crucial January 3 caucuses.

So ugly that before the event, Clinton privately apologized to Obama for comments by her New Hampshire cochair Bill Shaheen suggesting that Obama's self-disclosed teenage drug use could compromise his candidacy. Shortly after the debate, the campaign announced Shaheen had stepped down.

But anyone who tuned into the debate expecting to see fireworks between the two warring campaigns--or any of the campaigns, for that matter--went away disappointed. For the first hour, it was a polite, almost subdued affair. With little to differentiate themselves on most of the issues (end the war, rework the tax system, promote energy independence, reform healthcare and entitlement programs), it boiled down to the candidates making their familiar cases on the basis of experience. Or change. Or style.

Clinton's assertion that she believes change comes about by "working for it" and not "demanding it" (a reference to candidate John Edwards's fight-the-power theme) or "dreaming about it" (that would be Obama) was about as pointed as it got. But in the last half-hour of the 90-minute debate, things got a little more personal--and a little more interesting. Moderator Carolyn Washburn, editor of the debate sponsor, the Des Moines Register, zeroed in on questions of character and leadership, about which she said Iowans had expressed specific concerns.

Could Clinton, seen as "too closed and secretive" during her healthcare reform effort as first lady, assure voters she would be more open as president? Could Obama authentically make a case that he represents a break from the past when his campaign is stocked with advisers from Bill Clinton's administration? (Clinton laughed loudly, and Obama turned to her and said he's "looking forward to you advising me as well.")

The most hold-your-breath moment, however, was when Washburn asked Joe Biden if some remarks he's made in the past, including his reference to Obama as clean and articulate, suggest he isn't sensitive about the race issue. A somber Biden said that it's his blunt speaking that gets him in trouble and that anyone who knows him doesn't question his credentials. His fellow candidates applauded him, and Obama said he has "no doubt of [Biden's] commitment." (Note: Front-runners Obama, Clinton, and Edwards are all angling to be the second choice among Biden's supporters. On caucus night, if those supporters don't number enough to earn a delegate, they can shift their vote to any candidate. And in this dead-heat race, that may be all it takes to win.)

Bottom line: The candidates seemed just plain tired. But tired of Iowa? Most certainly not. In a nod to the locals, the final question was about Iowa's unique first-in-the-nation role in the choosing of a president. In a nutshell: All the candidates pronounced it absolutely wonderful.

By Liz Halloran