Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas made history with a series of debates in their 1858 U.S. Senate race in Illinois. Douglas ultimately won that race, but Lincoln, of course, later became one of America's best presidents.
Sadly, candidate debates in modern times are not especially illuminating. They often degenerate into personal attacks and attempts to embarrass other candidates, not necessarily to lay out a principled plan for guiding the country.
Is it unkind to observe, for instance, that there were no Lincolns nor Douglases in the Monday night debate in Florida among the four Republican presidential hopefuls?
Having lost the recent primary in South Carolina to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- and having lost his lead in polls on the upcoming important primary in Florida -- former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spent a good bit of the time attacking Gingrich on being an "influence peddler."
Gingrich declared the accusation false and later said Romney was "outrageously dishonest" for suggesting Gingrich had lobbied for government-run mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which was involved in the U.S. housing market collapse. He also noted that Romney owns stock in Freddie Mac and another mortgage company, Fannie Mae.
And so the sniping on secondary issues went, with lower-tier candidates Congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum trying to get in some punches at front-runners Gingrich and Romney as well.
Not helping matters was the often drab line of questioning, such as comparatively trivial questions on sugar subsidies and on whether Romney would release as many years of his tax returns as his father did years earlier. And moderator Brian Williams of NBC had told the audience to remain silent during the debate, which if anything made the exchanges even less interesting.
Whatever their strengths, neither Gingrich nor Romney said a great deal at the debate that would excite a majority of the American people. The fact that either one would be an improvement on President Barack Obama will not mean much if they cannot inspire voters in the November general election with a vision of where they would lead the country.