I JOINED THE RANKS of, say, something like 299 million other Americans and skipped last weekend’s Democratic presidential debate from Iowa. By my rough count, there have been at least 27 such candidate debates or special-interest forums since the first was held in late February.

That’s actually a mind-blowing number. Or, more appropriately said, mind-numbing. After watching nearly all the previous encounters, I could have easily pre-scripted and choreographed the entire event in Des Moines and I would have gotten it about 90 percent right. I think we all know the rote steps by now: Hillary claims to be the battle-scarred victim of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy; Edwards chides her for not repenting her vote to authorize the war in Iraq; Obama congratulates himself for opposing the war from the beginning, though he never had to vote on it; Biden dings Obama for being inexperienced and naive; Dodd tries to convince Hillary that he would make a better secretary of state than Biden; Richardson does his lounge-singer impersonation and promises to defy the laws of physics by withdrawing every single American soldier from Iraq within 11 minutes of his non-inauguration; and Kucinich whines that he doesn’t get enough camera time, though he uses half of what he’s allotted to do a pagan rain dance. Finally, they all join hands and solemnly agree that any of them would run a better White House than George W. Bush.

Did I leave anything out? Oh, yes, Mike Gravel reminds us that he’d be a wonderful candidate — that is, if he weren’t also a loon. And Wolf Blitzer or George Stephanopoulos inadvertently reminds us why it’s better to send your kid to drama classes instead of J-school.

And then we wonder why these Very Important Debates are drawing audiences that top out, quite literally, at about one-half of one percent of the actual electorate. The answer is simple: We haven’t seen any real debates so far. We’ve got a serious case of Debate Fatigue before they’ve ever really begun. Do a Google search on the news reports on the past “debates” and you’ll find the ad nauseam use of clichés like “sparring,” “jabbing,” “squabbling” and “bickering” to describe the action. The reporters can’t be blamed for recurring to such threadbare commonplaces, since, frankly, there’s no other way to depict what they’re seeing. Except for the slightly more accurate phrase “playing patty-cake.”

Barack Obama, fortunately, has now announced his intention to start skipping some of these televised tea parties. He says, quite understandably, that it’s impossible to schedule a real campaign when you know that every other day, you have to fly back to East Nowhere for yet one more forum, lest you offend the Ankle Cancer Survivors’ Democratic Club that’s organized it. I like this move by Barack, and I hope he keeps his promise. It’s a bit like raising the blinds in poker; it should increase the pressure on the rest of the field to start playing seriously or to start folding their pseudo-campaigns (I nominate windbag Joe Biden to be the first to exit).

This campaign started so early that we’ve gotten used to saying “It’s still early.” Actually, it’s already getting late, and we’re past due on starting to draw some real blood in these exchanges. We might still be in the lazy dog days of summer, but the first real balloting is now only 16 or 17 weeks from now. Iowa might actually hold its caucuses as early as Christmas or, at most, a week later. With the leapfrogging of accelerated primaries, including California, New York and New Jersey voting a mere month after Iowa, both parties are likely to have their nominees in place by the first week in February. This thing is almost over.

So why not accept the proposal floated by MSNBC and others to start breaking up the debates into smaller groups of just three or four and really let the candidates have at each other? And while we’re at it, let’s just eliminate the moderator and replace him with some sort of referee.

Such a segregated format would no doubt be greeted with some squealing from the minor candidates, but so it goes. I mean, poor Dennis Kucinich has already had 27 national opportunities to gain traction. How many more does he need? Personally, I’d be more than happy to watch a few debates where he and the other minor candidates step aside for an hour or two to allow a ménage of Clinton, Obama and Edwards, one of whom, like it or not, is actually going to be the nominee. Set the alarm and wake me up when someone gets around to organizing it.

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