JOHNSTON, Iowa - Democrats got down to serious policy matters yesterday at their final debate before Iowa's presidential nominating contest, soberly trading views on domestic and foreign issues and studiously refraining from the attacks that have characterized earlier debates.
Off stage, however, the increasingly close battle for the Democratic nomination maintained an edgy tone. Hillary Clinton - now in a dead heat against Barack Obama in New Hampshire and Iowa, polls suggest - yesterday accepted the resignation of her New Hampshire cochairman, Bill Shaheen, a day after Shaheen suggested Obama's admitted youthful drug use could make him vulnerable in a general election.
In a statement, Shaheen said he had "made a mistake" by suggesting Republicans might question whether Obama - who has told campaign audiences that he was wrong to experiment with marijuana and cocaine as a teenager - had ever given or sold drugs to anyone. Clinton has made electability a key element of her presidential quest, and Shaheen's remarks suggested Obama, who has been steadily gaining on Clinton in national and state polls, could not survive the electability test.
Clinton also personally apologized to her rival yesterday as the two prepared to take separate planes from Washington, D.C., to the debate.
During a 10-minute tête-à-tête on the Reagan National Airport tarmac initiated by Clinton, the US senator from New York said "she did not know that Mr. Shaheen was going to do what he did and was sorry about it," said David Axelrod, a senior Obama campaign aide. The senator from Illinois "took her at her word" and accepted her apology, Axelrod said, but also talked about keeping civility in the campaign.
"He expressed his view that it's important [that] campaigns send a message from the top" that such comments are unacceptable, Axelrod said. "If you send that signal, you're going to have fewer of those kinds of incidents."
Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, said Clinton believed Shaheen's comments "were inappropriate and didn't have a place in the campaign."
The bitter undercurrent of the Democratic race was barely evident on stage at the debate, the last gathering of the candidates before the Jan. 3 caucuses. US Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was not invited to the debate, though he challenged the debate sponsor's requirement of having a campaign office in the state.
Clinton took one veiled shot at her chief opponents, saying she had the best approach to bringing change to Washington.
"Well, everybody on this stage has an idea about how to get change. Some believe you get change by demanding it. Some believe you get it by hoping for it," Clinton said, clearly referring to Obama's message of "hope" and John Edwards's aggressive call for change in government.
"I believe you get it by working hard for change. That's what I've done my entire life," she said.
Edwards's campaign strategist, Joe Trippi, dismissed Clinton's remarks. "She actually thinks that demanding change is a mistake, is a problem," Trippi said. "We don't think so."
For nearly all of the 90-minute debate, however, the candidates aimed any fire at President Bush and other Republicans. They detailed their plans to clean the environment, expand prekindergarten programs to include all children, and roll back tax cuts for the wealthy and to help the middle class.
Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Senator Joe Biden of Delaware had a rare forum to showcase their knowledge, discussing their views on maintaining human rights and environmental standards in trade policy.
Edwards, a former senator of North Carolina - aggressive in previous debates - avoided criticizing his opponents, instead calling for caring for the neediest and fighting the "corporate power" he said is controlling Washington.
Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico extolled his record as a governor and as energy secretary, calling for an "energy revolution" aimed at more efficient use.
And while the candidates have often questioned one another's character and qualifications, they jumped to the mutual defense of rivals whose character and motivation were questioned by the debate moderator, Carolyn Washburn, Des Moines Register editor.
Washburn - noting that Biden had made comments about Obama being the first "clean" and "articulate" African-American presidential candidate as well as about the prevalence of Indian-Americans in convenience markets - asked whether Biden was "uncomfortable" discussing racial matters.
"My credentials are as good as anyone who's ever run for president of the United States on civil rights," Biden replied.
"Here, here!" his rivals cheered. Obama defended his Senate colleague, saying, "I have no doubt as to what is in his heart."
Dodd said after the debate that Washburn's was a "harsh question of Joe. The last thing you associate with Joe Biden is racism."
Dodd, too, was questioned about his motivation, when asked whether he was running for president to clear his family name. Dodd's father, Thomas, a senator himself and a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazi leaders, was censured by the US Senate in 1967 for diverting campaign funds for his personal use.
Dodd defended his father, whom he described as a man committed to public service. "He said there's no other calling in life where you can do as much for as many people as you can through public service. That's my motivation," Dodd replied.
Obama passed up an opportunity to tweak his chief rival about the fact that several of former president Clinton's foreign policy advisers were working for Obama.
Asked by the moderator whether he could make an argument for change while accepting advice from an earlier administration team - especially one associated with Clinton - Obama was diplomatic, saying he was willing to hear from advisers not only from the Clinton years, but also from the administration of the elder President Bush.
Clinton guffawed and said, "I want to hear that."
Obama looked at her and shot back, "Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."
Susan Milligan can be reached at email@example.com.