Officially the First, Democrats' Debate Feels Like Anything But

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2007

The Democratic presidential candidates will line a stage in Charleston, S.C., tonight for their first official debate.

And already, debate fatigue is setting in.

The Democratic contenders have taken part in three "unofficial" debates this year, on top of numerous other "forums" sponsored by various political constituencies. The schedule is only going to get more demanding: After tonight's debate, sponsored by CNN and YouTube and the first of six sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, there will be a crush of events, culminating in one week in early August when unofficial debates are planned in Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles.

At the end of a recent gathering in Detroit sponsored by the NAACP, former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) were overheard discussing their desire to limit the number of participants in the process, as well as the number of debates themselves.

The conversation, which the two candidates appeared to think was private but was caught on an open microphone, captured what strategists, particularly in the top campaigns, have been saying privately all year. Other candidates outside the top tier, particularly Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), blasted the discussion as a slight.

"Everyone is afraid to say no," said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, who is backing Clinton but not working for the campaign.

"Some group is sponsoring it who is an important constituency, and they don't want to get in trouble," he said. "The staff all sit around and wring their hands and say, 'We wish we weren't doing all these.' "

The problem is not, Elmendorf said, "the debate itself."

"It is the debate prep, it is the travel," he said. "The problem with debates is you don't control your fate or your schedule. If you're a candidate, you want to be the one to decide when you go to Los Angeles or Miami. You don't want to be told you have to be there."

The next DNC-approved debate is scheduled for Aug. 19 in Iowa, followed by an official debate in New Hampshire in late September and four more debates in early-primary states after that. With the candidates already spending so much time in the early-voting states, those debates are considered the least disruptive to meeting the other demands of campaigning.

But some of the others -- for example, a debate focusing on gay and lesbian issues in Los Angeles on Aug. 9 -- are putting strains on the campaign schedulers, who are already caught between finding time for the candidates to spend in early states and finding time for fundraising. The evolving and ever advancing primary calendar has made the crunch worse, several strategists for Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be seen as complaining about the debates.

It is a much smaller problem on the Republican side, where there has not been a debate since June 5 and where there are fewer advocacy groups demanding attention from the field. The next GOP debate is scheduled for early August, when all the candidates will appear on ABC's "This Week," hosted by George Stephanopoulos.

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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