Six Democratic hopefuls in not-quite debate


Coming on at 6:30 p.m., it was as if the Democratic presidential contenders had been declared the not-ready-for-prime-time candidates.

But, perhaps because so little was expected of the Mario-less group, these half-dozen wannabes provided an interesting 90 minutes of television last night in the first of a series of nationally broadcast encounters that will stretch over the campaign season.

NBC was first up in the network batting order, so its cleanup man, Tom Brokaw, was at center stage in what was not so much a debate, but a controlled discussion -- a format that proved much more interesting than the parallel news conferences that usually pass for debates in the final presidential showdown.

For a while, Brokaw appeared to be the seventh candidate, pushing his own agenda of questions a bit hard, but once things got rolling, and the candidates started turning on themselves occasionally, he let the program wheel freely.

Right from the start, it was clear why the early front-runners in this group are Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Harkin had an edge to him, an almost radio-like approach. In Marshall McLuhan terms, he was a hot candidate coming to you over the cool medium of television. Despite that mismatch, there was a refreshing quality to his style after so many years of media-massaged images that have covered over every possible rough edge to gain television advantages.

Harkin did show, as he apparently does on the stump, that there's still a bit of Iowa corn in him, holding up a dollar bill to the camera to illustrate his opposition to the middle-class tax cut bills currently circulating in Congress.

Clinton was a much smoother package, but among all the candidates, focusing as they were on domestic economic issues, he was best able to articulate complex, abstract concepts in straightforward, concrete terms that let you know what he was talking about and how it would affect your life.

You realize why people whose last memory of Clinton was his ill-fated, too-long, ridiculed keynote address at the 1988 Democratic convention find themselves sitting up and taking notice when he shows up in candidates' forums.

The first announced candidate in the race, Paul Tsongas, had an apologetic, word-swallowing style and a message so filled with arcane data that he seemed to be running not for president, but for chairman of the next president's Council of Economic Advisers.

Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder more than held his own with solid responses in what you would assume would be his weakest area -- foreign policy -- but was unable to come up with a spark that would distinguish his candidacy and elevate him to a national level.

As the 90 minutes went on, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey got stronger and stronger. He started out a bit bogged down in minutiae and is not helped at all by what looks like a bad, local-anchorman haircut, but he held steady to his course throughout, effectively handling himself in several tough spots.

If Kerrey does make it through the first few rounds, someone will probably start a pool as to how many times he will work into his answers that he served in Vietnam. The count was at least six last night, with two mentions of his stay in the hospital after being seriously wounded in action. Of course, such testimony does stand him in good stead when he unapologetically explains his opposition to the Persian Gulf War.

And then there's Jerry Brown, former California governor and combination court jester and philosophical gadfly of the group.

At times he was threatening to turn the affair into a spot on the Home Shopping Network as he gave out his 800 number for contributions. Brokaw had declared such pleas a no-no at the outset, but Brown made the point that General Electric, the company that owns NBC, gave out some $350,000 in campaign contributions, so why couldn't he ask people for the $100 maximum that he would accept? Isn't it a free country?

All of this was part of Brown's overall attack on the economic structure of our political establishment with its reliance on big contributors that leave our elected officials beholden to these rich supporters.

Brown's message was the most radical of the bunch. Indeed, it hearkened back to the participatory democracy that was the core of the New Left student movements in the '60s. But its substance is at odds with its packaging because, at base, it's a populist message, yet it's not going to reach a populist audience when it's delivered by a guy whose campaign is based on his opposition to the "context of illusions" of today's politics.

At one point during the show, the camera scanned the panel and Brown seemed to be reading the Sunday newspaper. Try as he might -- and in many ways he was the most interesting of the six last night -- Brown still comes off as the candidate from Mars.

Yet you do have to give the guy credit because Brown did put his finger on something of the essence of our presidential races in his final statement when he said, "There's a certain unreality about all of this."

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