ORANGEBURG, S.C., April 26 — Every field of candidates needs, for lack of a better term, comic relief — for the sake of keeping things interesting and, if everybody is lucky, for making the other smoothies on stage a little uncomfortable.
And at Thursday night’s Democratic debate, that role was played to all its glory by former Senator Mike Gravel, an Alaskan and onetime New York City cabdriver who embraced the role of scolding elder statesman to the ambitious, but more guarded, youngsters by his side.
Mr. Gravel was the first candidate to wander on stage, by himself, a little before 7 p.m. “Who’s that?” an audience member asked aloud. He largely eschewed the postdebate handshake, moped around for a few minutes and then headed off. “I’m not into those little niceties,” he said later.
In between, if Mr. Gravel, 77, did not steal the show, he certainly stole some of the limited sound-bite pie.
¶He proposed not just that the United States leave Iraq, but also that Congress enact a law that would make it a felony to stay there.
¶He said that some of his fellow Democratic candidates “frighten me” and that Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. had “a certain arrogance.”
¶He declared, at one point, that the United States had “no important enemies” and turned the questions back to the moderator, Brian Williams of NBC. “Who are we afraid of?” he asked. “Who are you afraid of, Brian?”
¶He said Osama bin Laden was so happy that the United States invaded Iraq “he must have been rolling in his blankets.”
It is not clear exactly what the Osama-in-blankets line meant, but like most things that rambled from the busy lips of Mr. Gravel, it left many audience members rolling in the aisles. He served as a kind of cranky uncle in the solemn field of well-barbered, sound-bite practitioners with whom he shared the stage, joining the other long shot, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, in berating the others as being too cautious in trying to get troops out of Iraq.
While most of his fellow candidates were content to chuckle at Mr. Gravel’s meanderings and not engage him, he could be relentless to a point where his stagemates could not resist. For instance, what was the poor Senator Barack Obama to do when Mr. Gravel keep poking at him, saying, “Tell me, Barack. Who — Barack, who’s — who do you want to nuke?”
“I’m not planning to nuke anyone right now, Mike; I promise you,” Mr. Obama reassured him.
“Good, good,” Mr. Gravel replied, satisfied, for now. “We’re safe then for a while.”
As with any such long-shot candidate, Mr. Gravel faces recurring questions about why he is here, and whether he is serious about winning the Democratic presidential nomination nearly a quarter-century after Alaskans voted him out of the Senate . Mr. Williams asked him as much, recalling that Mr. Gravel recently said it did not matter if he was elected president or not.
Mr. Gravel said he had made that statement before he had the chance to stand with the other candidates a few times. “It’s like going into the Senate,” he said. “You know the first time you get there you’re all excited — ‘My God, how did I ever get here?’ And then, about six months later, you say, ‘How the hell did the rest of them get here?’ ”
After the debate, Mr. Gravel did his own spinning in the spin room, delivering an entire interview in French with a Canadian television reporter. He poked his finger into the chest of a local reporter while saying he thought he had not had enough time to speak. He adjusted his hearing aid, fidgeted with a bright red tie emblazoned with “We the people.”
Darting across the room for another interview, Mr. Gravel said: “I get too angry. I have to work on that.”