WASHINGTON — The last presidential-candidate debates before Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses were supposed to be big deals — final chances for frustrated front-runners to look their momentum-charged challengers in the eyes and let 'em have it.
Instead, the Des Moines Register debates Wednesday and Thursday had all the pizzazz of a PTA meeting, as National Journal's Hotline put it. The biggest news came offstage, as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton offered their rivals apologies for incendiary statements lsewhere.
The debates? The Democrats' forum showed a smidgeon of life when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was asked how, as the candidate of change, his foreign policy would be much different from that of Bill Clinton's, since Obama was being advised by several former Clinton aides.
Clinton cackled at that and joked how much she wanted to hear the answer; Obama shot back, "Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."
The Republican face-off was expected to be more of a fracas, since former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had been aiming darts all week at his surging challenger — and now Iowa front-runner — Huckabee. Instead, everyone behaved like mom and dad were in the room, making nice and acting like gentlemen.
Then again, the format didn't lend itself to heated exchanges, as candidates were discouraged from engaging one another and given only 30-and-60 second chances to answer. Maybe the most telling moment came when former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thomspon was told he could not have a minute to explain his views on global warming.
"Well, then," Thompson said, "I'm not going to answer it." He won applause.
APOLOGY: REPUBLICAN VERSION
"Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, will be quoted as asking in Sunday's New York Times.
Romney, seeking to become the first Mormon to win the presidency, was not pleased to learn that quote was being cited on the Web. He said that Huckabee's comment was "really going too far." Huckabee apologized personally after Wednesday's GOP debate.
Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, said he was "horrified" by the quote, which he said emerged during a long conversation.
APOLOGY: DEMOCRATIC VERSION
The Clinton campaign dragged Obama's youthful drug use into the campaign. Then it tried not to.
William Shaheen, a veteran New Hampshire political operative and, until Thursday, co-chairman of Clinton's campaign, told The Washington Post that tales about Obama's youthful drug use could hurt Democrats should he win the nomination.
Obama wrote in his autobiography that, in high school, he experimented with drugs and alcohol, even occasionally using cocaine. He's also said that once he got out of high school, he realized what a mistake he'd made.
That may not matter, said Shaheen. "There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks," he said. "It's hard to overcome."
Shaheen's long been an influential Democrat in New Hampshire. His wife was governor from 1997 to 2003 and now leads polls to win a U.S. Senate seat next year. But Clinton's campaign quickly disowned his comments.
The senator herself apologized personally to Obama Thursday morning as they waited to board private planes at Washington's Reagan National Airport. He accepted her apology, but also lectured her against letting campaign subordinates practice what she and her husband Bill used to denounce as "the politics of personal destruction."
By the end of the day, Shaheen, who said he deeply regretted the remarks, was out as co-chairman.
Obama's rivals couldn't match his appearances with TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey for crowd size or media attention, but they managed to get some wattage from familiar names.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards campaigned with actor-director Tim Robbins in Iowa. Robbins blasted the media, asking, "What if instead of 24-7 coverage of the most recent pop star's fall from grace we would see 24-7 reporting of veterans returning from Iraq?"
At the camp of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the star of the week was former Chrysler Corp. mogul Lee Iacocca. He starred in a new ad for Richardson titled "Guts."
Clinton displayed her domestic side.
One of her new 30-second Iowa ads featured her daughter Chelsea and her 88-year-old mother, Dorothy Rodham. Another included only mom, who talked about the joys of raising Hillary.
And, she adds, "I think she ought to be elected even if she weren't my daughter."
ONE, a bipartisan group that claims 2.4 million members committed to make poverty and global disease key issues in the 2008 White House campaign, is taking its message to Iowa and New Hampshire.
The group began a $1.8 million ad campaign in the two states, the largest of any independent group so far. Its co-chairmen are two former Senate Majority Leaders and rivals, Republican Bill Frist and Democrat Thomas Daschle.
THE WEEK AHEAD
It's the last big week for stumping in Iowa before the Christmas-New Year's holidays, and most candidates will blitz Iowa from the Mississippi to the Missouri rivers, with lots of stops in between.
Adding spice to the week is that there are no more debates. Now it's all organization and one-on-one contact.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson vows to go "non-stop" in Iowa. Romney's got three days scheduled there. Clinton wraps up a weekend of events with a rally on Sunday at a Council Bluffs high school. And so on.