DES MOINES In the space of 24 hours, the nine lecterns occupied by Republican presidential candidates in the auditorium of the Iowa Public Television studios were replaced by six assigned to their potential Democratic rivals. You could hardly believe the candidates were discussing the same country.
The Iraq War was not on the agenda for either debate, but every Democrat made the promise to end it and bring home most or all the troops - while Republicans looked past Iraq and focused on distant challenges from rising Chinese power or Iranian nukes. Islamic terrorism was much on the minds of the Republicans; not one Democrat appeared to take it is an imminent threat.
At home, Democrats vied with each other in decrying the influence of corporations and industries - especially oil, gas and pharmaceuticals - on public policy, and vowed to fight their power in the nation's capital. The only organization that was identified by any of the Republicans as a threat to the public welfare was the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union.
The Republicans promised to keep or expand the tax cuts of the Bush years, with most of them pledging to go much further. The Democrats said those cuts should be rolled back, at least for the wealthy, and the funds used to pay for new domestic programs. By contrast, the Republicans promised to wield the budget ax, cutting government payrolls and slashing domestic spending.
When it comes to education and health care, the Republican plans rely on the magic of the marketplace - competition and consumer choice - to improve quality and reduce costs. The Democrats would increase government leverage on drug prices, and expand public education funding from pre-kindergarten through college. They are silent on the issue of school choice.
On a whole range of issues, therefore, the Republican and Democratic nominees will have sharply contrasting positions - setting up an election of large consequence. But that is not the full extent of it.
President Bush was barely mentioned by the Republican candidates, whose history books apparently ended with the Reagan administration - a model to many of them. But he got lots of attention from the Democrats, who vowed to start reversing his executive orders, scrapping his foreign policy, overcoming his vetoes of children's health and stem-cell-research bills, and generally wiping his legacy off the books.
On the other hand, one of the leading Democrats, Hillary Clinton, repeatedly invoked nostalgia for the era when her husband was president. She said she would revive the budget and tax policies of the 1990s, claiming that the average Iowa family gained $7,000 in income during that time. As if that were not enough of a backward glance, she also pined for the time of the Apollo program, when she was still a schoolgirl and felt the fascination of space flight. A new push for energy independence could revive the national spirit as the space program did, she said.
Clinton had a good debate, scoring best when she contrasted her approach with that of John Edwards and Barack Obama, her main rivals here in Iowa. After hearing Edwards repetitiously promise to fight the special interests and Obama make his usual plea for greater unity and understanding, Clinton said, "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. I believe you get it by working hard for change. That's what I've done my entire life."
As happened at earlier debates, Obama seemed less dynamic than he does when he has a stage to himself. But he was undamaged. And that was equally true of the two Republican front-runners in Iowa, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.
Chances are, therefore, that these final debates did not dramatically reshape the Iowa races. But they did showcase some also-rans who had exceptionally good days.
On the GOP side, Fred Thompson showed quicker verbal reflexes than in earlier debates, and his exchanges were both substantive and well turned. And Chris Dodd created a similar impression in the second debate; additionally, he was positioned at center stage for once, and the lighting made him look like he belonged on Mount Rushmore.
The Democratic candidates praised Iowa voters for their discernment. The voters will need all their smarts to sort out this one.