NEW YORK -- Right from the start, Wesley Clark bluntly acknowledged his political inexperience -- then used it as an excuse to dodge specifics and blunt criticism in his first presidential debate.
"If I've learned one thing in my nine days in politics," the retired Army general said with a smile, "you better be careful with hypothetical questions."
That's how he avoided the issue of financing the reconstruction of Iraq. He also pleaded ignorance on health-care policy -- "I don't have a complete package" -- and stepped around questions about home mortgages and other issues while nine other Democratic hopefuls gave the newcomer a pass.
"Wesley Clark escaped the venom of the rest of the candidates," said Dan Glickman, former Democratic congressman from Kansas and now director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School.
"I don't know if they're nervous about him or if his poll numbers are so high they're afraid to attack him."
Clark's name was sparingly mentioned by rivals; once by New York activist Al Sharpton who welcomed him to the debate -- and the Democratic Party.
Glickman said he's not sure what to make of the hands-off approach: "Maybe they believe they've got to take down Howard Dean first before going after Clark."
Dean is the former Vermont governor and campaign front-runner who fended off attacks from Reps. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio as well as Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.
"The real debate was between Dean and Kerry and Gephardt, the rest were placeholders," said Democratic strategist Jim Duffy. That could help Clark, who's not in a bad place; he leads national polls and has gained ground in key states.
Dean has the most to lose if Clark's Internet-driven campaign takes root. Yet he let his rival off the hook when Clark tried to explain his past support for presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush.
"We elected a president we thought was a compassionate conservative. Instead we got neither conservatism or compassion," said Clark, who first publicly declared his commitment to the Democratic Party two weeks ago.
"I am pro-choice, I am pro-affirmative action, I'm pro-environment, pro-health," Clark said. "That's why I'm proud to be a Democrat."
Dean made just a passing reference to Clark's party affiliation when he complained that the field was ganging up on him.
To listen to his rivals, "I'm anti-trade, I'm anti-Medicare and I'm anti-Social Security," Dean said. "I wonder how I ended up in the Democratic Party. I'm not a new entrant to the Democratic Party. I've been here a long time."
Clark didn't hide from the fact that he hasn't been around long.
"I've been in the race about nine days, so I don't have a complete package of health-care proposals," he said.
Later: "I've got a better jobs program in eight days than George Bush has had in eight years."
Moderators twice asked him to be more specific. Clark frequently glanced down at his notes, but appeared relaxed, spoke in conversational tones and -- like several of his rivals -- looked presidential.
"General Clark surprised me," said Murray Weidenbaum, professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Reagan. "He looked in command and he covered himself by pointing out how new he is to the campaign."
The debate, held within a mile of Wall Street, focused on the economy. The Democrats attacked President Bush, but spent most of their time underscoring their differences with each other -- on trade, Bush's tax cuts, health care reform and Social Security.
In the rocky first day of his campaign, Clark conceded he needed to learn more about domestic policy and flip-flopped on whether he would have voted for the resolution authorizing the Iraq war.
Even with his no-fouls first debate, "Clark has lot of growing to do," Duffy said. "He's going to have to perform in the next couple of months to live up to his billing."