The first vote has yet to be cast in a single presidential primary, but most of the contenders already have a severe case of don’t-want-to-say-it-too-bluntly-itis.

They’ve zipped their lips on the messy details of the issues that count – from the exact contours of a responsible Iraq withdrawal to how to avoid war with Iran.

More than a year from the finish line, the debate is already stale, the questions pro forma and the answers rehearsed.

So much so that even Tuesday’s Republican Q&A in Dearborn, Mich. – the first televised debate to feature Fred Thompson, of “Law & Order” fame – fell out of prime time.

Only the likely Republican also-rans bothered to attend a recent presidential debate at historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore.

The Democrats drew 2.9 million viewers to an Aug. 19 debate at Drake University in Iowa, the Los Angeles Times reports. Yet that’s little more than a third of the number who tuned into Ken Burns’ “The War.”

From far-out-front Democratic favorite Sen. Hillary Clinton to out-of-the-limelight Republican Tom Tancredo, it’s more about error avoidance and legalistic parsing than standing up with stark warnings of trouble and tough choices to come.

That pushes wedge issues to the fore and buries the truly thoughtful Iraq positions of old hands such as Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Joe Biden.

Instead, candidates with an impossible dream such as Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, or Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican, can sometimes steal the stage simply by being among the few not to pull their punches.

Yet that also aggravates partisanship, deepens voter cynicism and shifts the emphasis from war and peace to divisive issues like abortion, gay rights and stem cells.

Such problems afflict even thoughtful exercises in political choice, such as Minnesota Public Radio’s online “Select a Candidate” – an admittedly imperfect Internet survey designed more to underline a few of the candidates’ differences than to bring to light the full dimensions of the needed debate.

The poll is fun and quick – but also a little too revealing of the flaws of this race.

After I limited my responses to just two issues – Iraq and health care – in order to avoid distortions from the wedge social issues, my top candidates were in a tie: Kucinich and Tancredo.

Two more opposite persons couldn’t exist. Even worse, neither is anywhere near my thinking on health care OR Iraq.

But that’s what happens when it all gets too facile and superficial – both in politics and in war.

This nation stumbled into war in Iraq by making a villain like Saddam Hussein seem even more evil than he was. And now we’re heading in a similar direction with Iran and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the should-be-marginal demagogue whose interests America abets every time we fail to appreciate the nuances of the region.

Instead, voters should be demanding that our presidential candidates tell us how they define the enemy, post-9/11, and how they propose to defeat or contain those adversaries.

They should tell us how Iraq fits – or doesn’t fit – those goals, and how they propose to avoid not just an avalanche of bloodshed in Iraq, but also the real prospects now of war between Kurds and Turks or Saudis and Iranians.

And do we outvote the Iraqis on their own country – or let them run it?

U.S. Senators recently voted by a 3-1 margin to support a nonbinding resolution to divide Iraq into three parts. It’s a reasonable idea; Biden’s idea. Yet Iraqis were outraged, and the vote stirred a lot of anti-Americanism, even among Iraqis who support a temporary U.S. troop presence.

Iraq is a lot like Bosnia in its revived sectarian malevolence and breakdown of civil society – but not yet like Bosnia in seeing partition as the best way to stop the war.

It’s the nuances and the grays that matter, not the hard, delineated whites and blacks. And for would-be presidents, leadership counts. Experience of war or of the messiness to be found in the high-stakes world of war counts.

But most of all, truth counts. And right now, only the voters are in a position to demand the truth from these candidates.

Elizabeth Sullivan is foreign affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. E-mail her at [email protected]

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