LAS VEGAS – For much of the evening, it felt at times like the candidates might hold hands around the large wooden table where they sat, with compliments, teasing and first-name familiarity.
After several days of some of the campaign’s most heated rhetoric so far, including some that ventured into explosive issues of race, the top three Democratic presidential candidates gathered for a debate that offered a decidedly polite and conciliatory tone.
Each offered a more subdued approach, as they sought to steer voter attention to economic matters and the Iraq war, while making clear that they do not want race or gender to dominate their campaigns.
“How did we get here?” moderator Brian Williams asked Sen. Hillary Clinton, after summarizing recent statements involving the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon Johnson and teenage drug use by Sen. Barack Obama.
“What’s most important is that Sen. Obama and I agree completely that, you know, neither race nor gender should be a part of this campaign,” the New York senator said, before noting the historic nature of both her and Obama’s candidacies.
Clinton added that it can be difficult to manage all of the statements of exuberant and “sometimes uncontrollable supporters.”
While observing that race has always been a part of American politics, Obama said he believes Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards have “always been committed to racial equality.”
Then, asked about his campaign’s efforts to push a storyline that Clinton’s campaign is racially insensitive, Obama said he regretted that.
“Not only in hindsight, but going forward,” Obama said. “I think that, as Hillary said, our supporters, our staff, get overzealous. They start saying things that I would not say. And it is my responsibility to make sure that we’re setting a clear tone in our campaign.”
The tension over racially tinged remarks on the part of the candidates and their surrogates emerged over the weekend, just as the campaigning moved to Nevada, where roughly a quarter of the population is Hispanic.
The discussion Tuesday night played out, ironically, on what was King’s birthday.
Sponsored by a consortium of minority groups and broadcast nationally on cable channel MSNBC, the debate came just four days before Saturday’s Nevada caucuses. The contest is the third stop for the Democrats on the road to what has become a fiercely fought and unpredictable nomination battle.
When Edwards was asked how hard it is to run as a white male against the celebrity candidacies of Obama and Clinton, the former first lady showed sympathy, quietly saying, “Poor, John.”
Edwards, for his part, hammered away on the influence of money in politics and his desire to fight for the least fortunate.
The candidates were mostly on common ground regarding the economy, particularly on problems in the subprime mortgage market.
When the Democrats last met in Las Vegas for a mid-November debate, the field was considerably larger. Tuesday, only the three candidates were on stage.
Missing and angry was Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Before the debate’s start, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled MSNBC was within its rights to deny the long-shot candidate a spot in the discussion. Kucinich created his own broadcast, appearing live from a satellite truck outside the hall.