PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES are often downright boring. They frequently disappoint journalists because the candidates don't fight among themselves. More often than not, debates are marked by the relentless avoidance of candid answers. But presidential debates always have two things: winners and losers.
Here's how the seven Democratic presidential candidates fared in last night's debate, the final one before the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday:
John Kerry: He won for the simple reason that he was the frontrunner going into the debate and remains the frontrunner coming out. He wasn't scintillating, but he had no slips or gaffes that might have knocked him off his perch. Quite the contrary, he was forceful in his attacks on Bush. Of course, that was easy since the questioners didn't fight back, as Bush would in a general election debate. Kerry is the heavy favorite to win his second straight contest--first Iowa, now New Hampshire.
Joe Lieberman: This was his best debate performance ever. He won the argument with Howard Dean over removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He was fervent and at times funny and always decent and likeable. He deserves to finish higher in the primary on Tuesday than he probably will.
John Edwards: He is a boffo performer, though it's occasionally clear that what we're hearing is a scripted riff brimming with insincerity. Too bad he flubbed when moderator Brit Hume called him on his explanation of the Defense of Marriage Act. He didn't know how DOMA works. But he ably faked his way through an answer to Peter Jennings's nasty question about the tenets of Islam.
Howard Dean: He was calm and collected and uninteresting. He failed to redefine himself, but then how could he? It's impossible to undo the damage by his wild-man act after finishing third in Iowa. But he may have stanched the bleeding.
Dennis Kucinich: He came close to saying Lieberman, Kerry, and Edwards have blood on their hands for voting to authorize the war in Iraq. And he advocated that the United States pay reparations for damaging Iraq. Really. How about a payment from Iraqis for giving them freedom? It will be nice when Kucinich drops out and we don't have to hear him drone on at debates.
Al Sharpton: He was funny about Dean's outburst, saying if he'd been in Dean's shoes and gotten only 18 percent in Iowa he'd still be yelling. Try as he might, Sharpton couldn't explain what the Federal Reserve does. He didn't have a clue.