And they're off! Sort of.

The Democratic candidates for the presidency finally got the chance to tell the American people their plans for a new tomorrow in a debate on topics as varied as Iraq, Iran, terrorism and exiting Iraq last week. Afghanistan was suspiciously absent.

With all the enthusiasm of a customer service representative, NBC anchor Brian Williams trudged through questions both softball and fast-pitch in a desperate attempt to figure out which candidate stands above the rest. Unfortunately, the field is too crowded for anyone to gauge.

With so many candidates on stage, you might think the majority would be giving responses bold enough to distance themselves from the other candidates. Only two people really did that, Sen. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel from Alaska. Yet, they weren't seen as standouts in the crowd, but sideshows.

Mr. Kucinich deserves the label. He didn't have a chance in the last election, and he doesn't have a chance here. When the man pulls out a pocket Constitution to make a point about impeaching a vice president who hasn't actually committed an impeachable offense — at least, as far as we know — any hope that Mr. Kucinich can interpret the Constitution in a reasonable manner is lost.

Mr. Gravel may have even less of a chance, but he made a point that, while maybe coming off as a bit simplistic, actually rang with more truth than anything else said that night. The audience laughed when Gravel said, "These people scare me," and without a candidate who can make any definitive statements about any issue laid on the table, they should scare him. I'd much rather vote for a candidate who stated his intentions clearly than one who responds to a yes or no answer with, "Well, let me just say…"

The debate reached an apex of irrelevance when Mr. Williams asked the field of candidates what mistakes they've made. This should be one of the most humbling and important questions given to politicians who are trying to assert their responsibility and legitimacy. Instead, they're given 20 seconds to respond and treat it like an episode of the dating game. Oh, Mr. Obama knows he made mistakes, but his wife has a longer list. So he just mentions Terri Schiavo for good measure. Bravo. Ms. Clinton says she made a mistake with health care, but she made a bigger mistake believing the president on Iraq. Mr. Edwards' mistake was the same, as were Mr. Biden's and Mr. Dodd's.

What astounds me about the debate is the casual nature of the candidates. They looked like they were participating in an hour-and-a-half talk show instead of a debate. If you take out Kucinich and Gravel, this was about 30 minutes of blaming Bush, 30 minutes of dodging blame and another 20 minutes of actually providing logical answers.

The debate showed a major flaw of the Democratic Party and its candidates. They're concerned about Iraq, but by the time 2008 roles around, it's very likely that exiting won't be the party's major issue: The void left behind by American forces in the Middle East will be.

As much as the blame for this war falls on President Bush's shoulders, no matter what the outcome of this election he will not be the one to make the decision regarding the aftermath of U.S. foreign policy. As such, the candidates should be answering these questions as if they were the president. After all, that's the job they're running for. They should be able to say, "If I'm elected president…" and state their intentions. That phrase was uttered far less than President Bush's name.

What's more, the focus on the Iraq War really distracts from important issues like gun control, immigration reform and global warming. Sure, these topics were mentioned, but no one focused on them. No one focused on anything besides Iraq and terrorism. The minute Ms. Clinton mentioned that Wal-Mart was a mixed blessing, I knew there wouldn't be any straight answers for the rest of the night.

So how can the Democrats find out who is the best person for the job? First things first: theme the debates. You want to talk about Iraq? Devote a whole 90 minutes to just that. Then we can have separate debates on the other important topics, one by one. Then you'll start seeing the differences.

This debate touched on a few points, but it was dominated by one message: Bush lied, thousands died, we need out now. You don't need a debate for that. There are plenty of people on State Street that could provide you with a sign to that effect. If these candidates really want to be president, they need to act like it. That means expanding their focus beyond Iraq and Mr. Bush. That's because in two years' time, those two points might not be there to fall back on.

Jason Smathers ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in history and journalism.