And They're Off!

December 17, 1991

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.

Keeping the answers short and moving rapidly from topic to topic was annoying. This is sound-bite politicking. We would prefer longer answers from the candidates, with minimum interference by the moderator and other candidates. Rebuttal, yes; interruption, no.

Everyone has a different perception of who "won" and who "lost" Sunday's debate. As we read the instant analysis from political writers around the country, we noted striking disagreement. Our own view is that except for Governor Brown (who is the best known of the six, based on his longer career and previous prominence), all the candidates improved their chances by showing millions of Americans who knew nothing about them that they aren't kooks. Democrats who previously could recognize only the names "Cuomo" and "Jackson" on pollsters'lists now can put a face and voice to the other contenders for the party's nomination.

Newspapers are criticized every four years for treating presidential campaigns as horse races. But journalists have been doing that since shortly after The Sun was established in 1837, so don't expect us to stop now. We would have thought Governor Clinton and Senators Harkin and Kerrey got out of the gate fastest Sunday night, but it's a long way to the convention finish line.

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