Things may have gotten nasty on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, but Barack Obama saw the "gotcha" tenor of the Democratic presidential debate as a preview of what is in store for the general election campaign. And thousands of viewers, for their part, considered it an outrage.
For nearly an hour, the 10.7 million viewers of the most watched debate in this election cycle did not hear a single question about the economy, Iraq or healthcare. Instead, they heard ABC newsmen Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, the moderators, revisit controversies about Obama's former pastor, Obama's failure to wear flag lapel pins, and his casual association with a '60s radical.
In a town hall meeting in Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday, Obama sounded a cautionary note to supporters: "That was the rollout of the Republican campaign in November," he said. "They will try to focus on these issues that don't have anything to do with how you're paying your bills at the end of the month."
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, too, was grilled -- albeit less intensely -- about her discredited tale of landing under sniper fire in Bosnia in 1996 and whether she is trustworthy and honest.
Many who watched were livid.
"Great job, ABC," wrote one indignant viewer, in a posting on the network's website. "You managed to bury any signs of intelligent life under a mountain of pointless goo. What does any of last night's debate have to do with the price of bread (or gas), Iraq, Bin Laden, judicial appointments, public education, the mortgage crisis . . . oh, never mind. Let's all focus on lapel pins."
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who ran John F. Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004, said Obama should have shot back, "Where's your flag pin?" (Neither of the moderators or candidates wore one.)
Thursday morning, Stephanopoulos said that he and Gibson had decided to focus on what he called "electability questions" in the first half of the debate. "I think the questions we asked were tough and fair and appropriate and relevant," said Stephanopoulos, a senior advisor to former President Bill Clinton in his first term.
"The questions we asked are what the campaigns are debating every single day and are being debated in the political world every day. The question of who is the most electable Democrat is at the core of it."
By 8 p.m. Thursday, the ABC News website had received nearly 19,000 comments, most of them attacking the tenor of the debate and the moderators. One called Stephanopolous "George Stupidopolous."
"I will never, in my life, ever watch anything on ABC ever again. Goodbye," wrote one. "The debate last night was pathetic!"
Although vastly outnumbered, a few praised the debate for forcing Obama, in particular, to answer tough questions. "We really need to know more about Mr. Obama," wrote one viewer. "The questions about Rev. Wright and William Ayers" -- the former Weather Underground activist who was on the board of a charity with Obama -- "were right on target."
The debate was panned by some television critics. Tom Shales of the Washington Post accused the moderators of turning in
They dwelt, he added, "entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already had been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news."
Some pundits approved. New York Times political columnist David Brooks wrote on his blog: "I understand the complaints, but I thought the questions were excellent. The journalist's job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities. Almost every question tonight did that."
Bruce Gronbeck, a professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa, said that these kinds of questions, coming before the Democrats have settled on a nominee, might prove helpful to the party's candidate in the long run. "If you handle them well, the media may not cover them as enthusiastically and the public becomes inured as well," he said. "JFK got the religion issue out of the way, in essence, early and then could shine in the debates and in September and October when it counted."
Obama on Thursday pledged to counterattack, if necessary, in the general election. "If the Republicans come at me," he said, "I will come right back at them."
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said the campaign was comfortable with the way the debate had gone. "There is something good about candidates being asked to answer tough questions," he said. "It provides the public more information and insight. Certainly in the case of Sen. Obama, there has not been as much information being made available to the public. Last night was important and instructive."
But a strong Clinton supporter, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, suggested that the moderators had gone too far. "I think Sen. Clinton did a marvelous job, a much better job on the substantive issues," he told a Philadelphia reporter. "But the first 45 minutes was 'gotcha' issues, and it was Sen. Obama's misfortune that most of them except for Bosnia were asked of him."
An outtake from the end of the debate, which appeared on the Huffington Post website, showed Gibson being heckled by audience members as the program went to a final commercial break. "The crowd is turning on me," he said with a thin smile.
But ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, who was in the hall, said he believed some in the audience were angry that they had to sit through yet more commercials before being allowed to leave the venue.
Thursday evening, Gibson, without mentioning his connection to the contentious debate, introduced a segment on the ABC evening news about it.
"Both candidates were back campaigning today," he said. "Both showed last night they could take a political punch. But many of the blows today were being aimed at the debate itself and the questions asked."
In the report that followed, ABC correspondent David Wright said that Sen. Clinton "steered clear of the debate."
Her husband, he added, did not.
"They've been beating up on her for 15 months," the former president said in a clip from the campaign trail. "I didn't hear her whining when he said she was untruthful in Iowa, or called her the senator from Punjab. And you know they said some pretty rough things about me too. But you know, this is a contact sport. If you don't want to play, keep your uniform off."
© 2008 Los Angeles Times