GOFFSTOWN, NEW HAMPSHIRE — Near the end of Thursday night’s Democratic presidential candidate debate, I realized that I had been taking notes all wrong. Naively, I had been writing down the candidates’ answers, which really hadn’t amounted to much. None of them had attacked their rivals, none had broken new ground, none had turned a phrase or even gotten close to one.

Then, I realized: I should have been taking down the questions. That was where the attacks were launched, petulance unleashed, bile uncorked and parochialism run amuck. Two of the questioners, Brit Hume of Fox News and some blob from the Manchester Union Leader, came from right-wing partisan outlets, and the two other journalists, ABC’s Peter Jennings and a local talent from Manchester TV news, were determined not to let themselves be outflanked on the right.

The result was a series of questions that tested how the candidates would respond to Republican attacks. For all intents and purposes, that meant that many of the questions were Republican attacks. Doesn’t your tax policy sock it to small business? Aren’t you, or that other senator, wrong on the war? How much do you really know about Islam, anyway? Just how apostate a Catholic are you, supporting the right to choose and all? What Southern states can you carry, anyway?

Candidate answers were compressed to one minute, though no such limit seemed to apply to Hume, who was allowed the very kind of opportunity to rephrase his thoughts more forcefully that the candidates, laboring under that loony time limit, were denied. Hume asked Wesley Clark twice about his straying from Catholic doctrine on abortion, though Clark has long worshiped in a Protestant church. Tragically, Hume was born 300 years too late to take a meaningful role in the Inquisition; he’s a lucky man that Fox News came along to give him an outlet for what otherwise would have been an underutilized talent.

Some of Hume’s colleagues engaged in the silliest form of gotcha journalism. To Jennings goes the distinction of having forced Al Sharpton to demonstrate his ignorance of monetary policy. If an award were given for the smallest achievement by a debate questioner in 2004, Jennings would already have it sewn up.

The presumable justification for this whole line of questioning was that Democratic voters are now concerned with the electability of their candidates, so those candidates should be confronted with Republican allegations, or made to comment on how they think their rivals would do under Republican attack. Which effectively meant that the candidates needed to ignore the questions altogether if they wanted to do what in fact the eventual nominee will actually do when running directly against Bush: make the Democratic case against the president. Only one candidate did that, and only once, in the course of the debate: John Edwards, who pointedly dismissed the third or fourth question on gay marriage to talk about the growth of poverty in America. It was the high point of a low evening.

Conversely, the candidate most responsive to the questions was Joe Lieberman, since he is the only candidate so close to Republican positions on key issues that he could rightly and repeatedly state that the GOP couldn’t really lay a glove on him. He proudly defended his vote for the war by saying that Saddam posed “a clear and present” danger to the United States. Since we know Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, no army willing or able to put up a fight, and no ties to al Qaeda, how he could be construed as having posed a present danger would have been a good question, had there been a panelist with a faint Democratic, or even journalistic, bias. (There’s actually some possibility that Lieberman may finish sixth in New Hampshire, coming in behind Dennis Kucinich. Such a finish would, of course, confirm the existence of the just God in whom Lieberman so publicly believes.)

As to the major candidates: Did they actually say anything? Howard Dean was appropriately reassuring and gubernatorial. Clark seemed unsure what to say about George W.’s missing year in the Air National Guard, though in fairness his circling around the issue is as naught to the failure of the mainstream media to investigate it. Edwards was fine, but had few opportunities to weave the populist spell he does so well.

John Kerry had an off night, which he tends to do when he’s not embattled. Like Clark, he responded too defensively to Republican attacks, citing instances in his legislative record when he did, too, vote a certain way, rather than simply attacking Bush for the havoc that the president’s positions have wreaked.

But Iowa gave attack politics a bad name, so none of the candidates went after Kerry, whom all the polls show to be the front-runner and still gaining. The race here doesn’t yet have a clear dynamic of its own; the trajectories of Iowa are still playing out here: Kerry up, Dean down, Clark down because Kerry is up. The one candidate for whom this isn’t the case is Edwards, whom the polls show making small gains but nothing like his Iowa surge. Nothing happened in last night’s debate to alter these dynamics. For the moment, all’s quiet — surprisingly so — on the Northern Front.

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