It used to be that the important parties in a debate were the debaters.
Lincoln and Douglas. Kennedy and Nixon. Carter and Ford. Reagan and Carter.
But the morning after Wednesday night's presidential campaign debate in Philadelphia, the names on the nation's lips were . . . Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.
Gibson, the avuncular ABC news anchor, and Stephanopoulos, the network's mop-top political analyst, found themselves at the center of a cloudburst of criticism for their interrogation of Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
"Shoddy, despicable performances," grumbled Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, who thought ABC's coverage of the event "seemed slanted against Obama."
With thousands of angry comments pouring into ABC, the network addressed the "debate over the debate" in last night's telecast of ABC World News, immediately after the lead story of Pope Benedict XVI's meeting with victims of clergy sexual abuse.
"Shame on you, Charlie and George, we deserve better," wrote one viewer in an e-mail shown on-screen during the report by correspondent David Wright, who also pointed out that some of the comments had been positive.
If Gibson was embarrassed by any of this, it didn't show.
"The debate over the debate has been heated and continues at our Web site, ABC.com, and we appreciate all the comments sent in of all points of view," Gibson said. And then it was on to other news.
The viewers needed little invitation. By last evening, more than 17,000 messages had been posted on ABC's Web site. "What a sham. That was the worst journalism I have ever witnessed," wrote a person who logged in as boycottabcdisney.
ABC was unapologetic.
"The questions were tough and fair and appropriate and relevant," Stephanopoulos told the Associated Press. "We wanted to focus at first on the issues that were not focused on during the last debates."
Those issues included Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and Clinton's claim that she came under fire in Bosnia, said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president for ABC News.
"The Rev. Wright question had not been addressed; the Bosnia question had not been addressed," Schneider said. "It was important to ask."
The audience of 10.7 million was the largest for a presidential debate so far in this campaign, Schneider noted. With an audience that big, "we're not surprised that there is a huge reaction," he said. "It's yet another indication of how passionately engaged the American people are with this race."
He said ABC did not regard the debate as a conflict of interest for Stephanopoulos, who had been a press aide to President Bill Clinton. "He's been here 11 1/2 years, far longer than the time he spent in the White House," Schneider said.
Obama objected yesterday that it took 45 minutes for the moderators to raise issues of substance: health care, the economy, Iraq, jobs, gas prices. Campaigning in Raleigh, N.C., he mocked parts of the debate that had him on the defensive, according to the Associated Press. Deadpanning, the Illinois senator said: "It does not get much more fun than these debates. They are inspiring events.
"They like stirring up controversy, and they like playing gotcha games, getting us to attack each other," he said. "Sen. Clinton looked in her element. She was taking every opportunity to get a dig in there. That's her right to kind of twist the knife a little bit. . . . That's the lesson she learned when Republicans did it to her in the 1990s."
The Clinton camp shrugged off the controversy. "Both candidates got tough questions," spokesman Mark Nevins said in an interview last night.
Political analyst G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, echoed Obama's concern that it took too long to get to important issues. "I was disappointed with the first 40 minutes of it," Madonna said. "They should have started asking questions pertaining to policy issues and leadership and not focused so much on personal questions. . . . There was nothing new."
Madonna said he saw no conflict of interest in Stephanopoulos' participation. "I don't like the way the moderators approached the debate, but I don't think they were in any way malevolent. Rightly or wrongly, they made the decision that they wanted to let people know more about Obama's personal life."
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the school's Annenberg Public Policy Center, saw no bias against Obama. "Moderators tend to ask tough questions of front-runners," she said.
Donna Johnson Bullock, 29, a Philadelphia lawyer, was frustrated that the candidates were not asked more questions about issues of real concern to the city.
"Gun control, education - here we are in Philly, a city that has struggled with those ills, and you don't address it," said Bullock, who consults for the Center for Progressive Leadership, which coaches young African Americans running for office. "I thought that was a big missed opportunity."