ORANGEBURG, S.C. -- If you've been on Mars for a while and did not know the names of the Democratic White House frontrunners, you could have thought after the first presidential debate Thursday they were Sen. Joe Biden, Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Chris Dodd.
The 90-minute nationally televised debate on the campus of South Carolina State University -- the first of the 2008 season -- was dominated by criticism of President Bush and the Iraq war in a session smartly moderated by NBC anchor Brian Williams.
On the level playing field of the debate stage, the frontrunners -- Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, with former Sen. John Edwards behind them -- did not come out of the debate looking or sounding obviously more "presidential" than their second-tier rivals.
In that sense, they were upstaged by Biden, Richardson and Dodd, who showcased their years of experience.
The South Carolina primary, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 29, is seen as crucial in determining the eventual Democratic nominee and Edwards made a gaffe in the Bible Belt state. He was stumped when Williams asked him to name "your moral leader."
Seconds ticked by until Edwards came up with "My Lord," his wife and his father.
Obama neglected to mention Israel as a close ally without prompting. And when asked what he would do if two U.S. cities were under attack, Obama said, "Review how we operate." Clinton said "retaliate."
Clinton, however, probably made an unnecessary reference to "Bill" in trying to bolster her credentials to keep guns out of the hands of the criminal and mentally stable following a question about the Virginia Tech massacre.
The debate served to make one distinction: Obama, Clinton, Biden and Dodd flew to South Carolina hours after voting for an Iraq war funding bill calling for troops to start pulling out of Iraq Oct. 1.
Richardson, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, running a long-shot bid as an anti-war crusader, and the little known former Sen. Mike Gravel said they would not have voted to put more war money in the pipeline, arguing there is cash to bring soldiers home now.
Williams asked Obama about a report in the Sun-Times regarding his questionable relationship with a donor -- and whether that was contrary to Obama's claim he stands for a new kind of politics.
"We have thousands of donors," Obama said, adding that he "denounced" the donor, then switching the subject noted he passed a campaign finance bill while a state senator.
The line of the night belonged to Biden. Known for verbosity, he was asked if he had the discipline to serve on the "world stage."
"Yes," Biden replied and left it at that.