By David Paul Kuhn
CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
The Democratic presidential candidates took turns pummeling President Bush while treating each other with caution and courtesy in the final debate before the pivotal New Hampshire primary.
The main beneficiary of all this good behavior was front-runner John Kerry, the winner of the Iowa caucus. Unlike Howard Dean, the previous leader of the Democratic pack, the Massachusetts senator did not have to fight off multiple attacks from his party rivals and emerged unscathed from the encounter at St. Anselm College.
"This is a time to be affirmative," said Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who trails in the polls. His fellow Democrats agreed.
Dean, for one, was on his best behavior. The former Vermont governor left his slashing attacks on "Washington Democrats" on the cutting-room floor. He was trying hard to regain his political balance following a disappointing third-place finish in Iowa and a highly embarrassing "I Have A Scream" concession speech that followed that defeat.
Bringing attention to his raspy voice ("It's not because I was whooping and hollering at my third- place finish in Iowa; it's because I have cold," he said) the candidate took a calm and measured approach.
"I would have liked to have done a little better, but I congratulate John Kerry and John Edwards on great campaigns," Dean said.
The good fellowship did not extend to President Bush, who often served as a piñata during the debate at the small Catholic college in Manchester.
"This country is being led in a radically wrong direction by this president," said Kerry, who flaunted his background as a Vietnam War veteran.
"I'm not going to listen to (GOP House leader) Tom DeLay or the president or anybody else lecture the Democratic Party about patriotism," he said at another point.
The Democratic candidates also walked on traditionally Republican turf by repeatedly asserting their ability to win a values debate against the president.
"I want to put a strong basis of values back into this Democratic Party and take George Bush head-on," former-four star General Wesley Clark said. "Because family values is our issue in the Democratic Party; it is not the Republicans' issue."
"I'd challenge this president on values any day," Dean said.
And Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who stands third in the polls, came on as a Democratic tough guy capable of handling anything Mr. Bush might send his way.
"Remember, I didn't get to the Senate by accident," he said. "I actually defeated an incumbent Republican senator who was part of the Jesse Helms political machine in North Carolina."
A well-behaved crowd of about 550 people (matched one-for-one by reporters in covering the debate) sat through the live telecast moderated by Brit Hume, FOX News' Washington managing editor and Jennings, senior editor of ABC News' World News Tonight. Other panelists included a local television news anchor as well as the senior political reporter of the The Union Leader.
After the debate, the Democrats stood by name posts that were spread over a gym floor it what was sardonically called Spin Alley. Reminiscent of 5-year-olds playing soccer, reporters encircled the candidates as if they were all chasing the same ball.
Clark had to literally wedge his way through the press corps, not even making it to his spot. At base camp, the former four-star general said that he was "absolutely" happy with the way the debate turned out.
The political reality, however, is that Clark has remained stagnant in the polls over the past week despite the fact that he skipped Iowa in order to build his strength in the Granite State.
The consensus that emerged after the debate among pundits and political junkies was that Kerry had emerged as the victor, mostly because none of his rivals even tried to lay a glove on the front-runner.