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ABC debate brings Dems into sharper focus on both issues and gaffes

Combatants and inquisitors in Philly Dem debate. ABC and AP photos

Moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos are being hammered in some quarters for allegedly drenching ABC's Wednesday night debate from Philadelphia with stale gotcha questions instead of real issues of import.

Will Bunch's "Attytood" blog for the Philadelphia Daily News says the two news vets "disgraced my profession of journalism, and, by association, me and a lot of hard-working colleagues who do still try to ferret out the truth."

Longtime Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales says the "usually dependable" Gibson and Stephanopoulos "turned in shoddy, despicable performances." Furthermore, during the debate's first 52 minutes, they "dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news."

Shales can still turn a good phrase, and his writing invariably is enjoyable if sometimes off-point. But what a Bunch of crap from that other guy. "Attytood?" Better to retitle it "Sermons From the Mount By A Self-Important 'I, Me, My' Blowhard."

Let's note that Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were debating together on a national stage for the first time since their Feb. 26th faceoff in Cleveland. A lot has happened since then, including Clinton's Bosnia bumble, Obama's difficulties with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his recent San Francisco fundraiser remarks about supposedly "bitter" Pennsylvanians clinging to guns and religion.

Yes, these issues have been exploited by both the candidates and the media during a prolonged and oft-acrimonious battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the nation's viewers hadn't yet seen the candidates address them in a face-to-face encounter. Or, as Gibson imaginatively put it, "This is sort of Round 15 in the scheduled 10-Rounder."

Did ABC's critics really expect Gibson and Stephanopoulos to throw out nothing but another round of generic questions about the candidates' only slightly differing positions on the war in Iraq, health care, taxes and so on? Both Clinton and Obama are fully capable, as they again demonstrated Wednesday night, of responding to any question with an automatic pilot restating of their rehearsed-to-death talking points.

The candidates also are adept at lobbing grenades at each other if that's the game plan going in. Debate moderators should consider it their duty to push and prod, especially this late in the game. Imagine the outcry from some of these same critics had Gibson and Stephanopoulos simply laid back and let the candidates pontificate.

ABC's two-hour debate, minus 30 minutes of sometimes ill-placed commercials, wasn't a perfect production by any means. Obama got the lion's share of time in the opening hour, with Gibson twice noting that things were "getting out of balance."

"I've noticed," Clinton said with a game smile before acquiescing to a commercial break.

Two of the more provocative questions -- both of which blogger Bunch railed against -- came on tape from his fellow Pennsylvanians.

Tom Rooney of Pittsburgh said that Clinton had squandered her credibility with him after claiming she'd landed in Bosnia "under sniper fire" while First Lady.

"You really lost my vote," he said, "and what can you tell me to get that vote back?"

Nash McCabe of Latrobe asked Obama why he doesn't regularly "wear the American flag" while at the same time emphasizing she was "not questioning your patriotism."

The third outside questioner, this time Mandy Garber of Pittsburgh, asked both candidates to further specify their plans for getting out of Iraq. Each said they would begin removing troops on a set schedule regardless of the situation on the ground. That in fact seemed to break new ground.

In the end this was hardly a gossip fest. Gibson and Stephanopoulos tried to keep the candidates from replicating their stump speeches while also giving them ample time to enunciate their positions on key issues.

Events on the campaign trail are hardly of no consequence, though. Gaffes and previous associations need to be aired out. And this was the first time in almost seven weeks that a national TV audience could see both Obama and Clinton parry and thrust on the same stage in a high-pressure situation.

Wednesday night may well mark the last time these two will get together in a debate format. From this view, Gibson and Stephanopoulos for the most part asked sharp, provocative questions and followed up when the candidates tried to wriggle free with well-practiced side trips. That's a far better course than rolling over and playing dead with a question on the order of, "Senators, for those who haven't heard it yet, could you please detail at any length you please your proposals to achieve national health care for all Americans?"

That would have made for a one-question debate.