The Democratic presidential candidates who made their national debuts Sunday in the first of a series of NBC television debates were a less contentious bunch than their predecessors of four Decembers ago. That may be explained by the fact that while they disagree on basic tactics of campaigning, they agree on strategy. They all want to attract the middle-class voters who have drifted away from the party in the past two decades.
All, that is, except Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown. We don't know what he wants. He has drifted, too, from being a slightly bizarre governor of the most populous state (California) to truly fringe status. His drift has been not to the right or left, but up -- into space orbit. He interfered with the attempt by his five serious colleagues and moderator Tom Brokaw to begin the process of enunciating a Democratic message and distinguishing among it messengers.
Mr. Brokaw interfered, too. The format didn't help. He stood while the candidates sat, forcing them to look up to him. He controlled the questions and pace. And since Mr. Brokaw had been been around this track before, while Bill Clinton (Arkansas), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Bob Kerrey (Nebraska), Paul Tsongas (Massachusetts) and Douglas Wilder (Virginia) had not, he was more at ease. This diminished the candidates and the discussion.