The newspaper reports of last night’s Democratic presidential debate at Soldier Field made it sound like a dramatic free-for-all. The New York Times referred to how the candidates “sparred”; the Washington Post talked about “jousting” and “contact” on the football field. Here at home, the Sun-Times called the debate “lively” and “steamy” on its front page while the Tribune wrote of “attacks” during the “hot night on the gridiron.”

I thought it was pretty much a snoozer.

Here’s the thing: When a bunch of Democrats talk about themselves in front of thousands of union members, they’re going to spend most of their time listing all the picket lines they’ve joined, decrying the corporate fat cats getting rich while the rest of us struggle, and promising to create more jobs with decent pay and health care plans for all “working families.” And they did.

Nothing wrong with that, in my view–except that last night, that’s just about all they said. I know we’re months away from even the first primary, and yes, they spent a few minutes arguing over how to get what we want out of Pakistan and who’s bad enough to be able to do it, but I still walked away from Soldier Field wishing I’d just stayed home and watched American Pie 3: American Wedding . . . or done just about anything else more productive with an hour and a half.

The Republicans will have a real shot at this thing if even the top Democrats can’t answer the most basic questions about their beliefs or policy plans.

Think I’m being harsh? Consider that when Hillary Clinton got her chance to answer the question “Is China an ally or an adversary?” she blabbered on before concluding, “I do not want to eat bad food from China.”

Barack Obama didn’t have enough spine to tell the audience whether, if he were president now, he would host Barry Bonds at the White House for breaking the all-time home run record. After our senator answered by saying it would be a shame if children became cynical about sports, moderator Keith Olbermann asked the question again: Bonds at the White House, yes or no? 

“Well, he hasn’t done it yet,” Obama said of Bonds, who at that moment was a homer short. “So we’ll answer that question when it comes.” It came later that night, when Bonds hit homer number 756, but Obama was off the hook by then.

By far the most genuine, moving moment of the night came when a former south-side steelworker said he’d lost a third of his pension and all of his health benefits when his company filed for bankrupcy. “Every day of my life, I sit across the kitchen table from the woman who devoted 36 years of her life to my family, and I can’t afford to pay for her health care,” he said, his voice cracking. “What’s wrong with America, and what will you do to change it?”

The question went to John Edwards, who despite becoming a class warrior over the last few years really didn’t have an answer. “Bless you, first of all, for what you’ve been through,” Edwards said. “You’re a perfect example of exactly what’s wrong with America, both on pensions and health care.” He made an abstract call for universal health care and pension security–then mentioned that he’s walked 200 union picket lines in the last two years.

The most insightful, funny, and honest line of the night came early on from Bill Richardson as he attributed his past election victories to the support of union members. “I thank you,” he said, “and I will continue taking your financial support.”