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Grand Stand

Also-ran Dems get their night in the spotlight

But many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Never did Jesus' dictum seem truer than Wednesday night at the first Democratic presidential debate about Iraq at the Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Paul Wolfowitz once presided here for seven years as dean. But his star has fallen, and now it is Mike Gravel--presidential candidate, gadfly, and self-described "potted plant" who readily admits to his role in the 2008 race "as the crazy uncle who came down from the attic"--standing at the SAIS podium. "I don't know if you're familiar with the neocon plan for U.S. hegemony, controlling oil and using our military might to sustain that power," he lectures the audience. "But it's on paper!"

This may be Gravel's longest uninterrupted chance to talk during the entire campaign--and, simultaneously, the wonk-filled audience's own personal hell. Many showed up to see Senator Joe Biden, fresh off a passionate performance at Sunday's debate. Biden challenged the whole Democratic presidential field to an Iraq-only debate last month--but only Gravel and Congressman Dennis Kucinich took him up on the offer. When the night of the SAIS debate finally arrived, both Biden and Kucinich were stuck casting votes, meaning the entire first hour went to Gravel--evidently to the chagrin of the SAIS moderator, who swiveled his head and shot his co-moderator, from the Financial Times, frequent looks of bewilderment.

Gravel's subject de jour is his "Home Before Christmas" Iraq plan, which he would accomplish by passing a law making the war illegal and Bush a felon. He justifies the plan with a line of reasoning that may heretofore be referred to as the Butchery-to-Baskin-Robbins Theory of Middle East Peace: "One of my staff members was in Hanoi years ago," Gravel tells the audience. "There's a Baskin Robbins in Hanoi. A Baskin Robbins. We killed over three million Southeast Asians. We laid the land waste. Keep in mind," he continues, "there's a parallel here that's very interesting. We left, and everyone said dominoes are going to fall in Southeast Asia. And it just didn't happen. And so that same analysis operates toward the Iraq situation."

The point of this Iraq debate--which allows for unscripted questions from the audience (that may be why the top-tier candidates declined to attend)--is to strip away the talking points and the packaging and get down to the details. But it sometimes serves, instead, to showcase how crucial good presentation is. When Biden finally shows up at the hour-and-a-half mark, he launches into his federalization plan, suggesting that countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia will respond well to our pleas to keep Iraq stable because "I always assume self-interest dominates."

At its philosophical core, this position is not entirely different from Gravel's. But the former Alaska senator's delivery needs a little work to skirt clear of tinfoil-hat territory. ("Scoop Jackson thought he controlled me," Gravel informs the audience at one point.) Before the debate begins, for example, Gravel entertains a circle of rubberneckers in a small reception area laid out with oily cheese cubes and wilting fruit. "Al Qaeda--they're really crazy. They'll kill anyone," he says. I look down: His dress shoes fasten with Velcro. "So when we get out, the Sunni and the Shiites will get together and kill them."

A dapper young SAIS student in a suit and tie objects. "That's just your assumption," he says. "They might not."

"Yes, they will," retorts Gravel, rocking back and forth in agitation against the orange couch he is sitting on. "Civil wars always have a winner. And in Iraq the winner will be Muck. Muck. Muck--"

"Moqtada Al Sadr," an onlooker offers.

Undeterred by the memory lapse, Gravel barrels into an International Relations 101 lecture on political motivation, tutoring the twenty-somethings on why--if we hightail it out of Iraq, leaving not a single boot on the ground--wider conflict won't emerge. "Why do you think the Saudis would sit Hezbollah and Hamas down and make them hammer out a peace agreement?" he badgers.

"You tell me," the student in the suit says, backing up a little.

"Because it's in their interest!" Gravel bellows triumphantly, the orange couch finally shooting out altogether from under his rear end.

In a seemingly incredible turn of events, at this debate, Gravel actually serves as the sane foil to Dennis Kucinich. "I see the world as one," Kucinich explains when he arrives an hour late to take over for Gravel, apparently mixing this engagement up with a Free Tibet concert. "Do we not have evidence all around us of the oneness of the world?" I can't think of evidence supporting that notion in Iraq right now, but nobody bothers to object.

The Financial Times bureau chief, looking to rankle, asks Kucinich whether he doesn't have something in common with neoconservatives, given his belief that America has a higher calling to lift up humanity. He doesn't, he replies, because unlike the neocons, his belief in American exceptionalism is scientific. "This is a phenomenon in physics known as entrainment," Kucinich tells the Brit. "A lower-vibration frequency will attune to the vibrations of a higher frequency. America can lift up the hopes of the people of the world, but we must do it from truth. Truth, I would say, is a higher vibration."

By affording Gravel, Kucinich, and Biden more time on a more focused subject than the ordinary Democratic debates, this forum--due to the late arrivals, it functions more like three policy speeches than an actual debate--gives them the chance to demonstrate that their ideas aren't less inspiring than those of the top contenders, just less frequently heard. Biden uses the event to make an early Cabinet bid, recounting a meeting he had with the U.N. Security Council's permanent five where he left thinking, "I can do this! If I were president or secretary of state ... ."

But Kucinich and Gravel waste their opportunities. They resemble less the candidate vying to be known than the practitioner of the wisdom found in the bestselling self-help DVD The Secret: If you wish for something hard enough--if, in fact, you act like your wish has already been fulfilled--then it will come true. Therefore, Gravel's Iraq logic goes, if we truly understand that parties in the Middle East are bound to act according to their interest in stability, it will be thus. Perhaps nobody was thinking along these lines vigorously enough during all previous wars in human history.

Likewise, says Kucinich, "if we believe in the potential of peace, it can happen." But Kucinich's wish for harmony only goes so far: As he walks into the SAIS building where the debate is being held, Gravel's huge, three-foot face is discoursing on a screen in the lobby. Somebody off-screen is trying to get him to stop. "Is he here? Is he here?" the pixilated Gravel asks petulantly, referring to Kucinich's expected arrival. "I'll stop when he's here."

"He's here! He's here!" event staffers posted in the lobby shout, hauling open the auditorium's double doors and smiling at Kucinich expectantly. But the congressman recoils, cowering a little at the entry's left hinge. "No," he says, with evident distaste. "I'll go in when he's over." His beautiful new wife--whom he will later introduce to the audience as his "life partner in a quest to create a new world"--seizes him by the wrist and shoves him through the doors.