THE DEBATE….There are times when I really admire the fortitude of mainstream reporters, and last night was one of them. For the first time in a while I watched one of the Democratic debates, and by the end I felt like I was in a total fog. What would I have done if I had to write a thousand-word summary to make the next day’s paper? I couldn’t even figure out enough to say for a blog post.

Part of the problem was Tim Russert. I long ago got tired of his rote version of gotcha interviewing, and it was on full display last night. He seems to think that the only way of interviewing politicians is to find something embarrassing or inconsistent that they once said and then demand that they explain themselves. Not only does this get boring, but he doesn’t seem to have figured out that modern politicians all know perfectly well how to avoid answering these “have you stopped beating your mother” questions. So instead of a hard-hitting debate, what you get is even mushier and less enlightening than a normal conversation. The answers all start with “Let me back up and explain the real issue here” and then meander off into whatever the candidate feels like talking about. The only thing Russert’s questions accomplish is to make each candidate waste ten or fifteen seconds at the beginning changing the subject.

As for the candidates themselves, Edwards seemed to me to do the best. His answers weren’t as sharp as I’ve seen before, but he mostly seemed to frame things in ways that made sense, even in cases where they make no sense at all (for example, the business of cutting off congressional healthcare until Congress passes a healthcare bill). Obama was, again, tentative and halting. He mostly just relied on well-rehearsed soundbites and constant reminders that HE WAS RIGHT ABOUT THE WAR FROM THE BEGINNING. We get it, Barack. Hillary was OK, but didn’t really advance her cause, I thought. Even granted that Russert should quit asking hypotheticals since he knows no one will answer them, her answers to his hypotheticals were more plainly evasive than usual.

Among the others, Gravel needs to be put out of his misery. These debates really don’t need comic relief in the form of someone playing the cranky uncle role. Dodd did pretty well, I thought, though his reliance on his decades of Washington experience didn’t seem very convincing. Richardson never does very well in these forums and didn’t do well last night. Biden I can’t figure out. He has this weird attitude that seems to say that he’s just up there having a good time and knows perfectly well that he has no serious chance of becoming the nominee. And he knows we know it. So we’re all in on the joke. Or something. And Kucinich was Kucinich. It doesn’t matter that much, but he did better than usual.

Anyway, those are my impressions. What were yours?