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Officially the First, Democrats' Debate Feels Like Anything But

Even Clinton, a disciplined and experienced candidate with a polished delivery on policy matters, sets aside time to prepare for each debate, underscoring how none of the campaigns treat the forums as toss-away events.

As the Democratic Party did in 2004, DNC Chairman Howard Dean tried at one point to intervene in the process, brokering the deal that resulted in six debates this fall (the same number held in the last election cycle). Yet there is nothing to stop the candidates from signing up with every special interest group that makes an offer, and the lesser-known candidates, such as Kucinich and Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), often do, forcing the front-runners' hands.

Edwards, frustrated by the time restrictions forced on the candidates when so many are on the stage, has offered to participate in a smaller, three-person event with Clinton and Kucinich, if the other candidates will accept similar events.

"Senator Edwards feels strongly that voters deserve more substantive debates between the candidates," Eric Schultz, a campaign spokesman, said yesterday. "One way to do that would be to break up the field into smaller groups for real debates. You cannot explain how you will end the war in Iraq or solve the climate crisis in 60 seconds."

Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster who is not affiliated with any campaign, said part of the problem for the campaigns is that the significance of each debate is diminished by having so many, and each one offers an opportunity for the candidates to make mistakes. Still, he said, "these are not the functional equivalent of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It's just another venue where voters have a chance to hear and see how the candidates handle themselves."

But Rep. James E. Clyburn (D) of South Carolina -- home to tonight's debate -- said the process itself is to blame. "I think there may be some danger of campaign fatigue, but I don't think anybody will get all that upset about the debates," he said. "I think they get upset about being in campaign mode for such a long period of time."

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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