WASHINGTON -- Hypothetical questions can be danger zones in presidential debates.
Michael Dukakis learned that, almost two decades ago, when he answered a question about what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered.
In last night's opening debate of the 2008 campaign, it was Barack Obama's bad luck to be the first candidate asked how he would respond militarily overseas, as president, to a hypothetical al-Qaida terrorist strike on two U.S. cities.
The freshman senator said he'd make sure there was an effective emergency response to the cities that got hit. Then he would find out if there was any intelligence about who might have carried out the attack, "so that we can take potentially some action to dismantle that network."
His rivals were less equivocal.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards said they would act "swiftly" to retaliate. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who wasn't even asked the question, volunteered that he "would respond militarily, aggressively."
Obama, apparently realizing he might have stumbled, interjected a few minutes later that there was "one thing that I do have to go back on, on this issue of terrorism. . ." There is "no contradiction between us intelligently using our military and, in some cases, lethal force, to take out terrorists and, at the same time, building the sort of alliances and trust around the world that has been so lacking over the last six years."
In 1988, Dukakis' legalistic response about the death penalty, in a general election debate with Vice President George H. W. Bush, was often cited as a key moment in that campaign, because it seemed to portray the Democrat as a bloodless, unemotional figure. Overnight, his poll ratings dropped.
Obama's less than surefooted response in his first debate as a national candidate isn't likely to have that sort of impact, particularly at this early stage of the campaign, nine months before the first primary. But the exchange did seem to go to questions about the depth of Obama's experience, a potential vulnerability for someone who has been on the national scene for only three years.
It may well have been the most telling moment of the debate, telecast from the campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black college in the state that is currently scheduled to hold the first southern primary next January.
For the most part, the first side-by-side encounter of the Democratic contest was serious-minded. It was largely free of overheated rhetoric, at least on the part of the major contenders, who avoided attacks on each other. Instead, they saved their sharpest words for President Bush and, not surprisingly, his conduct of the war in Iraq, the overriding concern of Democratic primary voters, polls show.
A chummy, cozy air prevailed onstage, with Clinton and Obama referring casually to each other by their first names. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who delivered an unsolicited plug for Clinton's candidacy at one point, then gave her a peck on the cheek when the debate was over.
Clinton, the early front-runner in the polls, was error-free, if occasionally evasive. Her experience showed at several points, including when moderator Brian Williams of NBC News asked if Wal-Mart, a favorite target of liberal activists, is a good or a bad thing for America.
"Well, it's a mixed blessing," responded Clinton, without mentioning that she once served on the company's board of directors.
Asked if she agreed with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's recent assertion that the war in Iraq had been lost, Clinton ducked. "This is not America's war to win or lose," she said.
Sen. John Edwards, fighting to hold his place in the so-called top tier of candidates with Clinton and Obama, managed to get in a plug for his wife, Elizabeth, who is suffering from cancer and a highly popular figure in Democratic circles (Clinton, similarly, played the Bill card at one point, answering a question about the Virginia Tech shooting by recalling his administration's response to the Columbine massacre).
Edwards appeared somewhat taken aback when asked about his work as a paid adviser to a hedge fund, and whether hedge funds make America a better place. He replied that Wall Street "can play a significant role in trying to lift people up who are struggling."
Clinton chimed in with praise for America's "entrepreneurial economy" and how the free market system is regulated "so nobody gets an unfair advantage," though hedge funds are largely unregulated ventures.
The rest of the field struggled to break through the clutter, with a crowd of eight candidates forced to share less than 90 minutes of cable TV time.
Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut defended his state's legalized civil unions for gay people by saying he would want to have loving relationships sanctioned for his two young daughters, "who one day may have different sexual orientation than their parents," though he emphasized that he opposes gay marriage.
The two longest shots in the field, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, played the part of provocateurs, lobbing the only critical comments of the night at fellow Democrats, largely over their support for the war and their failure to bring it to an end.
Even Obama, who opposed the Iraq war resolution while still a state legislator, got whacked indirectly by Kucinich for voting to fund military spending as a senator, "because every time you vote to fund the war, you're reauthorizing the war all over again."
Constrained by rules that forced them to keep their answers to one minute, the candidates were remarkably economical in their responses.
Biden was asked by the moderator about his reputation for "uncontrolled verbosity" and past, damaging gaffes. Could he could reassure voters that he would have the self-discipline to be a world leader?
"Yes" was his answer, prompting laughter in the hall.
A total of two dozen primary-season debates in both parties have already been announced, with others likely to be added, between now and next winter.