What happened
Angry viewers peppered ABC News with complaints that the Democratic presidential debate it hosted this week was unfair to Barack Obama. The Obama campaign said the debate was a mudfest of “gotcha politics,” and Obama complained that it took 45 minutes to get to important issues such as health care, Iraq, and jobs. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, an active supporter of Obama’s rival, Hillary Clinton, said he was “disappointed” in the debate, moderated by ABC veterans Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, who said the questions were “tough and fair.” (New York Daily News)

What the commentators said
ABC’s anchors made it clear that their “hunger to make news” was more important than “the voters or the issues,” said The Boston Globe in an editorial (free registration). Gibson and Stephanopoulos “focused on the trivial and tendentious, from why Barack Obama doesn't wear a flag pin, to why he served on a charitable board with a 1960s ex-radical, to whether he thinks his controversial ex-pastor ‘loves America.’” They “hounded” Clinton, too, but not as mercilessly. “All of the elevating quotes from the US Constitution that greeted the commercial breaks couldn't disguise how low the questions had sunk.”

Boy, ask a couple of “unpleasant” questions and Obama and his disciples whine about “gotcha politics and distractions,” said Jim Geraghty in the National Review’s The Campaign Spot blog. “Hey, welcome to the big leagues, rookie.” If Obama wants to stop looking like he cracks under the slightest pressure, he should take a lesson from John McCain, who didn’t flinch when “The New York Times did that inane front-page story insinuating, but never quite coming out and accusing him of having an affair with a lobbyist.” Instead, “he took every question until no one had any left.”

Gibson and Stephanopoulos are “taking a lot of heat for spending so much time asking about Jeremiah Wright and the “bitter” comments,” said David Brooks in The New York Times (free registration). But “the fact is that voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences. Fairly or not, they look at symbols like Michael Dukakis in a tank, John Kerry’s windsurfing or John Edwards’s haircut as clues about shared values.” The real trouble for Obama is that as the race drags on, he looks more like an “orthodox liberal” than an “unconventional” agent of change.

Actually, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post (free registration), “viewers who kept wading until they got to the other side of the swamp” got a glimpse of the some real news. Obama, “a longtime gun control advocate who has taught constitutional law,” said he believes “as a general principle” that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms, not just a collective one. And Clinton suggested a broad shield of nuclear deterrence to counter Iran’s nuclear program. “This strikes me as the kind of big, complicated idea that someone should have asked Clinton to explain further”—too bad it didn’t make Gibson and Stephanopoulos curious enough to dig deeper.