WASHINGTON When the Democratic presidential candidates debate, the sound is more cacophony than chorus. It's a reflection of the numbers nine candidates squeezed into 90 minutes.
In the four fall debates to date, time limits have cut short candidates' answers, the three long shots have used up precious chunks of debate time and some reporters' questions have rambled on. The fifth debate, held Sunday in Detroit, was expected to be no different.
''It is a barrier to being able to seriously focus on the message of those more likely to be the nominee,'' said Michael Pfau, a specialist on presidential debates from the University of Oklahoma. ''There are just too many people.''
If a candidate wants to present an agenda or spell out a policy at length, forget it. Distinguish themselves from a rival? Maybe. Get in a good, short quip? Likely. Even the candidates are frustrated with the arrangement.
''To be honest, I think these debates are not particularly helpful to voters. Everybody gets about 60 seconds to say what they think about really complicated policy matters,'' Howard Dean said after a recent session.
Steve Elmendorf, a senior adviser to Rep. Dick Gephardt's campaign, said the debates will be ''a lot more interesting when you get down to two, three or four candidates. We wish we had more time to talk about what we want to talk about.''
The last thing the Democrats would do is tell any of the nine the field once totaled 10 with Sen. Bob Graham of Florida that they could not participate. The number, by the way, is not the most ever in recent decades. At least a dozen Democratic candidates ran in 1972.
If the party drew the line at the candidates in the top tiers in fund raising, for example, and barred the long shots such as Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, it would run the risk of offending critical constituencies.
Democratic consultant Dane Strother, who is not affiliated with any candidates, said efforts to limit candidate participation would be foolish.
''Who's going to make the call that the only woman can't be there?'' he said. ''Who's going to make the call that the African-Americans can't be there?''
Yet, some see the debates as making a contribution to the political discourse and the 2004 campaign.
''They accomplish a great deal,'' said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. ''They give candidates a chance to get better in the forum of debates, they help focus the individual candidates' message and they point to areas of agreement and disagreement.''
For those who closely watch politics, the sessions offer some valuable insights, debate specialists say.
They point to Dean's resilience under repeated criticism; Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's quick move in the Phoenix debate to walk over and connect directly with the audience; Wesley Clark's struggle to fend off multiple attacks in that same debate.
If viewership is any guide, the debates should improve. Only about 1.8 million people saw the recent debate in Phoenix with nine candidates. In 2000, the final presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush was seen by an estimated 37.6 million people.
Still, the current sessions get a not-ready-for-prime-time rating from some academics.
''The debates have an effect of debasing the office these men are seeking. There's a circus quality to them,'' said presidential historian Henry Graff of Columbia University. ''I think the public is watching these men, not so much for what they say, as much as whether they look like presidents.''
Will Lester covers politics and polling for The Associated Press.
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