Some Bark, Few Soundbites at Howard

The rules made it difficult for them to capitalize, but Mike Gravel handed his seven fellow Democrats a golden opportunity for a “Rudy moment” midway through tonight’s presidential forum.

The topic was the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the African-American community, but Mr. Gravel, the scattershot Alaska senator from a generation or two ago, used his time to plead for the legalization of drugs, arguing that those targeted by the federal government’s war on drugs are not criminals.

Unlike virtually every other answer from every other candidate the entire night, his words were not greeted with applause from the Howard University crowd, but rather with uncomfortable and very audible murmuring. Mr. Gravel, the same man who believes that seven minutes worth of footage of sticks on fire makes for a good campaign ad, may very well have believed he was tapping into popular sentiment within the African-American community, the audience for whom tonight’s forum was primarily intended. But he was not, and in that moment immediately after he stopped talking there was an opening for any of his rivals to firmly and emphatically tell him so – a move that would have generated a response from the audience akin to the campaign-changing ovation Rudy Giuliani received when he lectured Ron Paul at an earlier Republican debate.

Instead – perhaps because the rules technically forbade direct exchanges between the candidates or maybe just because they are used to tuning out when Mr. Gravel speaks – the other Democratic aspirants said nothing and the moment passed. So did the night’s best – and probably only – opportunity for one of the candidates to stand out from all of the others on what was a very crowded stage.

The forum was slated to run for 90 minutes, but after some absurdly protracted top-of-the-broadcast festivities (the President of Howard University introduced radio talk-show host Tom Joyner, who introduced moderator Tavis Smiley, who plugged his book before introducing Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who introduced the eight candidates, who then posed for pictures with Mr. Patrick and Mr. Smiley before finally being ushered by Mr. Smiley to their podiums), they were left with 75 – which ended up being 69, when Mr. Smiley abruptly cut off the final response of the night (fittingly from Mr. Gravel) at 10:24 P.M. Those 69 minutes were marked by almost complete unanimity of opinion on every subject – from the criminal justice system to early childhood education to Darfur (Mr. Gravel’s non-sequiturs notwithstanding). The phrase most commonly uttered by candidates tonight was some form of, “Well, I agree with everything that’s been said so far.”

That is not to say the forum lacked for substance. Indeed, it was very obviously designed to be weighty where the previous two Democratic debates, on MSNBC in late April and CNN earlier this month, were not. And so there was no Wolf Blitzer, picking and choosing which candidates could reply to which questions and for how long, or trying to stir up trouble between the front-runners. We were also spared the false drama of the “Raise your hand if you think the national lunch meat should be salami” stunts that featured so prominently in the previous two outings. Instead, the 69 minutes of Q&A were governed by a simple and rigid set of guidelines: One of three media panelists asked a question, which was answered, moving down the line from left to right on stage, for one minute by each candidate, with Mr. Smiley keeping time. The questions all ignored the horse race and didn’t single out one candidate or another, instead giving each candidate an equal opportunity to sound off on issues (often marginalized by the national media) that are of particular concern to African-Americans. Which is certainly a noble idea, but in practice the format may not have been as valuable as its organizers hoped.

For instance, the opening question, the only one asked by a member of the audience, quoted W.E.B. DuBois and asked the candidates if race in the 21st Century remains “the most intractable” problem facing America. Perhaps this could have opened the door for some revealing comments, but the format allowed the candidates to seek out the sterile, inoffensive, clock-killing ground they seem to covet in these events.

Hillary Clinton, for instance, declared that “Yes, we have come a long way, but yes, we have a long way to go” – an inoffensive platitude that could just as easily have been spoken by a “compassionate conservative.” No different was Bill Richardson’s brave observation that “race is a major issue in this country and the next President has to talk about it.” Even John Edwards, in ably connecting the question to his familiar “two Americas” theme and providing a few specific (if very broad) ideas, didn’t stray at all from his long-established talking points. But there were no follow-ups from Mr. Smiley or from the panel, no challenge to move the candidates from their rehearsed comfort zones and into unfamiliar, and potentially revelatory, territory.

The other problem was how much common ground existed on most questions – perhaps most notably a query about disproportionate incarceration rates between African-Americans and whites. No fewer than four of the Democrats advanced the idea of equalizing the threshold levels that trigger automatic sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession. It was one of just many occasions when the candidates found themselves using their time to say, in effect, “Yeah, what he said.” Maybe Wolf had the right idea after all.

It’s no secret that African-Americans, one of the most loyal component groups of the Democratic coalition, have been short-changed historically when it comes to choosing the party’s presidential nominee. In the run-up to this forum, organizers played up its “historic” status, the first time a panel exclusively comprised of minorities would question presidential candidates in a nationally-televised event. And that was fitting, because the African-American vote figures to be more crucial in the ’08 nominating process than ever before. Yes, Iowa and New Hampshire are still early heavyweights, but the South Carolina Primary, in which about half of the Democratic electorate in black, could be unusually decisive next year, perhaps breaking a tie when the candidates emerge from Iowa and New Hampshire (and Nevada, too).

In that sense, tonight was a particular opportunity for Barack Obama and John Edwards, both of whom are relying on South Carolina as part of their nomination strategies. If you pencil Hillary Clinton into the final round on the Democratic side, South Carolina looms as the potentially decisive test between Messrs. Obama and Edwards, with the winner receiving a one-on-one shot against Mrs. Clinton in the “mega-Tuesday” primaries of next March 5. For now, Mr. Obama leads in the Palmetto State with 34 percent, followed by followed by Mrs. Clinton at 25 percent and Mr. Edwards (who won his native state in his 2004 bid) with 12 percent.

But neither of them seems likely to gain or lose much ground as a result of tonight. Mr. Edwards was prepared for each question with statistics, some specifics, and some form of a broad, moralistic call to action. For instance, on the HIV/AIDS question, he confidently ticked off three Edwards administration priorities – funding research for a cure, funding the Ryan White Act for treatment of patients, and making medicines that are now unaffordable available through the Medicaid program. He surely won fans with his performance tonight, but as the South Carolina poll shows, he is not the first choice of many black voters – and Mr. Obama’s showing tonight will probably keep things that way.

The Illinois Senator wasn’t as specific as Mr. Edwards, but he was more assertive than in previous gatherings, perhaps calmed by an audience that seemed, mostly, eager to embrace him. (As the candidates took the stage, his reception was easily the loudest, and several audience members shouted encouragement to him as the candidates posed for pictures.) In answering a question on childhood poverty, Mr. Obama demonstrated his unique ability to play to the pride black voters may find in his candidacy: “We need somebody in the White House who’s going to recognize these children as our own.”

Of course, Mrs. Clinton had her moments too, in particular on the HIV/AIDS subject. “If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death for white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.” The roar from the crowd was as loud as it was all night, and cutaway shots on television showed women jumping to their feet. If Mr. Obama appeals to pride of African-Americans, Hillary showed, she can still corner the market on women.

The format was much different tonight, but the outcome was about the same as the first two Democratic showdowns: The pecking order remains the same.