How many debates is too many? With months to go before the first presidential primaries, and most Americans not paying close attention, it's a question worth asking—especially as the number of scheduled and proposed debates for the Democratic presidential candidates continues to climb.

All of the Democratic contenders have agreed to attend six pre-primary debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, the last of them in Los Angeles in December. But in recent weeks, the candidates have also been drawn into debates hosted by bloggers, gay rights activists, and union advocates, with more invitations from liberal interest groups coming in all the time.

Just before the Democrats' early-morning, DNC-sanctioned debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on August 19, Barack Obama said he'd had enough. His campaign announced that it would no longer be accepting debate invitations from interest groups, arguing that the proliferation of these events was preventing Obama from talking to voters. He'll still do the DNC-sanctioned debates, and some other debates he's already committed to, but no more than that.

In the spin room after the Des Moines debate, I asked Obama's top strategist, David Axelrod, what was behind the decision. "We've done eight debates and we're going to do seven more," Axelrod told me. "Once in a while you want to spend time with your fellow Americans, too." Obama looked, during the debate, as if he'd also like to spend a little more time in bed. So did a lot of the other candidates. Clinton even joked, when the cameras first turned to her: "As soon as I wake up, I'll answer your question."

Still, with a representative from the League of Conservation Voters prowling the spin room offering a written complaint about Obama's decision (the League wants to host a debate on global warming), I wondered whether Obama's stand could hurt him, especially since he's the only candidate to publicly announce such a policy. Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, also in the spin room, told me he doubted there would be much fallout. At this early date, Dean told me, "the penetration of these debates is among political junkies and political journalists."

* * *

That may be, but it doesn't mean that the debates haven't contained important moments. The Des Moines debate was a dud in the sense that it didn't produce the verbal attacks that pundits had been hoping for (and that moderator George Stephanopoulos seemed to be pushing for), but it did produce an interesting exchange about the issue that most concerns voters these days: Iraq.

Up for discussion was how, exactly, the U.S. should pull out of Iraq. Bill Richardson again pushed his "one-point plan" that would pull U.S. troops out by the end of this year, leaving behind only the forces needed to protect the American embassy in Baghdad. But Joseph Biden called that plan unworkable at best, and dishonest at worst. "It's time to start to level with the American people," Biden said of the Richardson plan. "This administration hasn't been doing it for seven years. We should... If we leave Iraq and we leave it in chaos, there'll be regional war. The regional war will engulf us for a generation."

Biden supports partitioning Iraq into autonomous Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish areas, and favors a slower withdrawal (he says Richardson's timeline for withdrawal is a practical impossibility anyway, given how long it would take to move so much equipment and so many troops). Hillary Clinton seemed to endorse Biden's slower timeline, saying, "Joe is right that this is going to take a while. People say you can move maybe a brigade to two brigades a month. It is so important that we not oversell this." Obama also seemed to agree, but the part of his answer that received the biggest audience response was when he reminded those onstage that he'd been against the war in the first place. Edwards, for his part, offered few specifics and seemed to be trying to blur the differences between the candidates on Iraq. "Any Democratic president will end this war," Edwards said.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Ron Paul, who, along with his legions of internet supporters, had invested huge hopes in the outcome of the August 11 Iowa Straw Poll, now has to find something else to look forward to. Paul finished fifth in the poll (Mitt Romney placed first, Mike Huckabee second, Sam Brownback third). Not surprisingly for a man whose presidential ambitions date back to at least 1988, Paul is taking the long view and claiming to still be on "the right trajectory."

What trajectory is that? The trajectory, it seems, of a turtle.

"One old friend compared this campaign to the tortoise, and our opponents to the hare, in the old Aesop's fable," Paul told supporters recently. Fittingly for a slow-moving candidate, Paul's Northwest fans were out in force at Seattle's Hempfest over the weekend, courting the stoner caucus with reminders that Paul, alone among the Republican candidates, has been a harsh critic of federal drug laws. recommended