WASHINGTON -- To nobody's surprise, the state of the economy and the changing world situation, and what the six declared Democratic presidential candidates see as President Bush's shortcomings in dealing with both, dominated last night's televised network debate among the Democrats.
But the Democrats still found time to bicker among themselves as each strove to set himself apart before many voters who were seeing most of them for the first time.
For those voters who were getting their first look at the crop of 1992 Democratic hopefuls, the early conventional wisdom of the politicians and assorted media kibitzers was probably confirmed -- that none has yet lighted a bonfire, and until the man who wasn't there, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, does or doesn't enter the race, the real weeding-out won't begin.
Nevertheless, the 90-minute debate on NBC -- the first of seven to be sponsored by major network and cable broadcasters -- did give viewers a good sample of the styles and substance of the six current candidates that have led political observers to regard the field in a first and second tier in potential appeal.
The three generally regarded to be in the first tier -- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa -- demonstrated the reasons they are so seen.
Clinton was smooth and sure-footed in outlining his agenda for bringing tax relief to the middle class, deeper defense cuts to meet domestic needs, more aid to the Soviet Union and a forward-looking foreign policy.
Kerrey continued to push his plans for comprehensive national health insurance as the key to righting the economy. And, as he has been doing in other forums, he referred to his service in the Vietnam War, in which he lost a leg, in criticizing Bush as a "Cold Warrior" who "has his sea legs in the Cold War."
Kerrey called for the United States to move "beyond confrontation to cooperation" with the new Soviet republics and to extend more economic aid to them.
Harkin, the most traditionally liberal candidate in the field, nevertheless ridiculed the call by Clinton and others for a middle-class tax cut, holding up a dollar bill and claiming that's what the average family would get a day, when what the middle class needs are more jobs.
The other three in last night's debate, generally assigned to the second tier -- former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and former Gov. Jerry Brown of California -- strove aggressively to break out of that pack, sometimes in a direct challenge to Clinton, Kerrey or Harkin, but mostly with glancing blows.
What sparks did fly, however, resulted from efforts by Brown to focus the debate on his campaign theme that money has corrupted the political process by enabling big-dollar contributors and special interests, through political action committees, to control candidates and dictate their agendas.
Brown charged the others with "spending most of your time trying to take care of the right people." After Brown made several similar remarks, Kerrey turned to him, said he resented them and demanded: "Are you saying I'm bought and paid for [by special interests]?"
Brown replied that "you're part of it," but in the same breath acknowledged that "I was part of it" when he was governor of California. Brown also tangled with the moderator, NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw, observing that General Electric Co., "which owns NBC," gave millions to incumbents last year. And he pointedly ignored a ground rule set down by Brokaw against candidates asking for contributions during the debate, charging that the network was trying to "censor" a presidential candidate.
For a time, Brown's charges turned the debate into a free-for-all that did nothing to improve the Democratic Party's image of disarray on the national level developed in recent years.
The 90-minute exchange demonstrated considerable areas of agreement among the Democratic contenders -- in support of affirmative action in hiring, defense cuts and aid to the Soviet republics, though Harkin said he favors credits for food purchases here. Harkin and Wilder tied aid to dismantling of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
The format, in which Brokaw strode before the seated candidates and popped questions rather than having a panel of reporters do so, had the advantage of providing most of the allotted time to the candidates, and led to direct exchanges among them. No one candidate, however, had a great deal of time to go into his own proposals in any depth.
There will be six more of these encounters, and the big question remains -- will Mario Cuomo sit in, or won't he? The deadline for filing for the New Hampshire primary is Friday and Cuomo is expected to say what he will do by then.