WASHINGTON -- A new phase of the presidential campaign starts this evening, when the Democratic contenders go head to head in a televised debate.
For the first time, voters will be able to make side-by-side comparisons of the candidates, whose campaign efforts, up to now, have been confined mostly to early primary states. What could well be a record number of primary season debates is being planned, with two dozen forums announced already in places as diverse as Orangeburg, S.C., Simi Valley, Calif., and Baltimore, over the next nine months.
With wide-open contests for both the Republican and Democratic nominations, the debates have the potential to be more influential than usual.
"A race this open and this dynamic means each candidate will have multiple opportunities to be on the big stage, with the spotlight on them, to make an impression with voters," said former Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman. "The bad news is, the candidates will have to perform better on more occasions over a longer period of time."
Candidates will be trying to avoid an embarrassing episode that could damage or even sink their chances.
In the first presidential campaign of the online video era, a major debate gaffe can be magnified with devastating swiftness. Distributed via the Internet, the images can quickly reach an audience far larger than viewed the original event.
A gaffe, "overnight, can take on a life of its own," said Steve Jarding, a strategist in Democrat Jim Webb's successful 2006 Senate campaign in Virginia. That race started turning in Webb's favor after a damaging video clip of Republican Sen. George Allen using what some regarded as a racial slur began circulating on YouTube.
Absent a serious blunder by one of the candidates, the 2008 primary debates might have a more modest impact, say campaign veterans, including Jarding, who ran John Edwards' political action committee in advance of his 2004 Democratic presidential candidacy.
The sheer size of the field is one impediment, along with rules that limit serious discussion of issues.
Eight Democratic candidates will be onstage for tonight's 90-minute debate at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg (7 p.m., MSNBC). Next week, 10 Republicans are to take part in their party's first debate, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles.
With that many candidates vying for attention and rules that severely restrict the amount of time they can speak, "you're essentially giving bits of canned speeches, or a 30-second ad," said Jarding. "That's not a debate, that's a controlled photo op."
Even though the presidential campaign has gotten off to a quick start, the first debate isn't much earlier than it was four years ago, when nine Democratic candidates met May 3, also in South Carolina.
In all, the 2004 Democrats held 15 primary season TV debates. There were few, if any, memorable moments.
"They had no effect," said Kenneth Baer, a senior adviser to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's 2004 presidential campaign. "If anything, [the debates] are low hurdles, and if a candidate stumbles on one, then they could be - and should be - out of the race."
Leading contenders, including former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sens. John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, may have little to gain by taking risks in the debates, strategists say.
For candidates struggling to earn name recognition, though, the events are a way to make a splash, and perhaps impress party activists, by upstaging better-known and better-financed rivals.
"I think it's important to get the candidates side by side," said Republican Sam Brownback, a social conservative who registers at just 1 percent in the latest national polls, adding that the "so-called front-runners" in his party have "some disconnect" with conservative primary voters.
For a first-time national campaigner like himself, televised debates are "very helpful," the Kansas senator told a group of reporters yesterday. But "I don't think that you make the candidacy or lose it over a debate or two."
Debates could be important in helping the candidates reach out to the leaders of specific constituencies - such as organized labor, anti-war, abortion and gun owner groups - which will be watching closely to see how aggressively each contender speaks to their priorities.
Even before the debates get under way, Democrats are using them to score points. Last month, Democratic Party officials in Nevada were forced to cancel a planned Aug. 14 debate after at least two presidential candidates, Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, said they would not participate. Liberal activists had pressed the candidates to skip the event because it was being co-sponsored by Fox News, a network they regard as biased in favor of Republicans.
More recently, Edwards announced that he won't participate in a Sept. 23 debate in Detroit, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, because it was to be carried by Fox News. Obama and Clinton quickly said that they would skip it, too.
Potential conflicts already are evident in debates that have been announced. For example, PBS is sponsoring a Sept. 27 debate for Republican presidential candidates at Morgan State University, to be moderated by talk show host Tavis Smiley. Meanwhile, Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., has scheduled Democratic and Republican debates for Sept. 26 and 27, to be moderated by Tim Russert of NBC.