It was a different group of candidates who took center stage in Iowa today but the final debate before the Iowa caucuses didn't yield much difference in terms of results. Despite a few moments of levity and tension, the six Democrats trod through a list of rather pedestrian questions in much the same way their Republican counterparts did yesterday – with a litany of generalities and campaign slogans.
To the benefit of the candidates on stage considered unlikely to win the nomination, the lack of an Alan Keyes or Mike Gravel made this an affair where all six candidates looked as if they belonged in a presidential debate. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson all stood out as articulate, thinking candidates with a vision of what they would do as president.
But the reality is that the race, at least for now, remains a three-way competition between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. While there was no direct mention of some of the issues which these three have bickered about in the past, each managed to set themselves apart in ways the Republicans did not. If there was a winner, it may have been Edwards. His answers to almost every question hewed to his populist themes of sticking up for the disadvantaged and sticking it to corporate America. That should play well among Democrats in Iowa.
Obama was once again the "hope" candidate, urging Democrats to seize the moment and the movement he appears to be riding. A question about his reliance on former Clinton administration officials for foreign policy advice could have been a bad moment for him as he tried to differentiate his approach to candidate Clinton's. But he was saved by a return of the Clinton "laugh."
For her part, Clinton showed absolutely none of the desperation or indecisiveness that is rumored to be affecting her campaign as her once-formidable lead has shrunk. She exuded complete confidence in winning the nomination, so much so that one of her New Year's resolutions was to run a general election campaign that can attract support from all quarters. She managed to take slight shots at both Edwards and Obama in talking about change, saying some of her opponent demand it while others simply hope for it.
The most riveting moment in an otherwise un-riveting debate centered around Joe Biden who was asked about past comments he had made concerning African Americans, including calling Obama "articulate" on the eve of announcing his candidacy. A heartfelt defense of his own record on civil rights was met with applause by his opponents and a direct statement of support from Obama. It was a nice moment that exhibited a lot of respect for Biden. But with the Iowa caucuses just 21 days away now, don't expect the love-fest to spill out onto the trail.