Tough Crowd

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As the New York Times reported on Saturday, front runners for the Democratic presidential nomination are getting ticked off at having to share the limelight in televised debates with no-hopers like Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Dennis Kucinich. “I think the crowded field allows the most shrill, conflict-oriented, confrontational voices to be heard,” said John Kerry, whose campaign is lagging, “and not necessarily the person who might make the best candidate or the best president. They’re very superficial.”

But Kerry and the other Alpha candidates dutifully showed up on Sunday night in Detroit for the latest debate, the fifth since September.

Which can’t have been fun: the 90-minute televised forum slipped easily into to the now-familiar pattern he was grousing about. In short, the top-tier candidates, Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt and Wesley Clark, ignore the B-List contenders and try to stand out from their rivals by landing memorable put-downs. Moseley Braun, who has no chance, takes up valuable air time, sounding likeable and reasonable. Kucinich and Edwards just take up time. And Sharpton fires off the best lines, making everyone else look uptight. With nine candidates working the stage, there isn’t a whole lot of time for establishing substantive distinctions.

But Kerry isn’t the only candidate unhappy with the format. Gephardt, Lieberman, and Dean have also found it problematic. Analysts also agree, Michael Pfau, an elections specialist calls the large debates a barrier to focusing on the message of the potential nominees. “There are just too many people,” he says. In a recent debate on CNN, Kerry faired well with about 10.5 minutes of speaking time compared to the five to seven of the other candidates. (Which isn’t to say voters liked what he said; Dean stayed out in front.)

A problem, for the Democrats, is that the “shrill” voices belong the most progressive candidates, two of whom are African-American, and the debates offer them a valuable national venue for highlighting important issues like racism and inner-city blight. But many argue that these “fake” candidates shouldn’t be consistently put on the stage with the “serious” candidates. Ted Van Dyk writes in the Seattle Post-Intelligencier that the marginal characters are stealing the show.

“Al Sharpton, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun are not serious candidates. Sen. John Edwards is, at most, a regional candidate and would-be vice president. The real contenders are former Gov. Howard Dean, Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Kerry and Rep. Dick Gephardt. Former Gen. Wesley Clark, staffed by Clinton campaign alumni, could join that list or flame out quickly, depending on his performance over the next month. Yet, because the ground rules of the appearances necessarily treat the participants equally, the also-rans are given the same deference and attention as the real candidates.

The marginal characters with little to lose can define the terms of discussion for everyone else. Sharpton, for example, is a notorious grandstander capable of throwing off any outrageous riff he chooses. The serious candidates, forced by the moderator to respond, face the constant possibility that Sharpton will play the race card — his only card — against them, hurting them unfairly on race-related issues.”

Even if Sharpton sees himself as in the race for the long haul the voters clearly don’t, the most recent polls show him hovering at the bottom of the pile. A Newsweek poll gives him 8 percent, ahead of Moseley Braun’s 6, Edwards’ 5 and Kucinich’s 2.

While Sharpton’s ratings have not changed much throughout the entire race, his wit and humor serve to get people’s attention. During the Oct. 9 debate, Sharpton cracked up the audience with his non-stop humor.

“If I were president, I would go in and say, ‘We were wrong.’ Tony Blair and George Bush had a meeting, acted as though it was a world summit. Two guys in a phone booth acted like the whole world had met.”

Moseley Braun, Sharpton and Kucinich are all running low-budget campaigns, and Braun pointed out that not all candidates have the funds to advertise their politics. “The Democratic Party, of all parties, should stand for the big tent for real, and not something determined by how much money you have and how many ads you can buy,” she said.

Like it or not, it does look as if the top candidates are getting shortchanged. Chris Suellentrop writes in Slate that in Sunday’s debate, Moseley Braun and Sharpton were the only candidates who came across with any bite.

“The only candidates to have even a decent night were Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton (with the addendum that, when none of the serious contenders has a good night, front-running Howard Dean does well simply because the status quo doesn’t change). Braun fired off one of the better lines of the early part of the debate, after moderator Gwen Ifill apologized to her and Dennis Kucinich for not asking them a question yet. In a reference to the back-and-forth bickering among the other candidates, Braun replied, ‘That’s just because nobody’s mad at us.’ She managed to elude a question about her unwise decision to visit Nigeria’s dictatorial regime while she was a U.S. senator by appealing to her trailblazing status: ‘As the only African-American in the United States Senate, it was not inappropriate for me to visit countries in Africa.’ And she had the cleverest closing statement, calling herself the candidate who is ‘the clearest alternative to George W. Bush. I don’t look like him, I don’t talk like him, I don’t act like him, I don’t think like him.'”

And as Dane Strother, an independent Democratic consultant notes, no one is going to tell Moseley Braun she can’t debate. “Who’s going to make the call that the only woman can’t be there…Who’s going to make the call that the African-Americans can’t be there?”

Then again, Braun’s and Sharpton’s quips might not really matter anyway, because not that many people watch the debates. A recent article in USA Today found that the Oct. 9 debate had a smaller audience than the lowest rated prime-time entertainment show on network television. And maybe the fact the debate is a debate and not a “reality show” is the problem. According to Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason Magazine, the candidates would probably fare better with the public if only they could be more dramatic. With two more debates on the cards, the candidates had better get rehearsing.

“Sorely lacking from the televised debates are, well, the elements of good television, especially reality television: drama, tension, plot twists, ritualized humiliation, and the elation-inducing elimination of annoying cast members. Given that politics is the ultimate reality TV series, it only makes sense that the Dems retool the debate format to mirror the most popular trend in programming. Indeed, as the Republicans start dreaming of retaining the White House and consolidating power in both houses of Congress in 2004, the Dems’ survival may well hinge on aping Survivor and its TV kin.”


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