The usually fair and straightforward Tom Brokaw went astray a few times in the course of moderating last night’s Democratic debate on MSNBC.

Brokaw, mentioning David Kay’s comments this week concerning pre-war intelligence about Iraq, asked Howard Dean about his opinion on how the intelligence had gone astray. After the former Vermont governor stated that the president and vice president had misled the country over Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, Brokaw replied: “But in fairness, David Kay also told me the other day that he thinks now, looking back, that the two years before we went to war was the most dangerous period in Iraq in a long, long time because it was spinning out of control. Saddam Hussein was not in charge. There were people coming in and going out of the country, including well-known terrorists.”

Why is Brokaw responding to a candidate’s position at all - and not with an additional question, but with a non sequitur? His job isn’t to argue a point — it’s to draw the candidates into expressing their positions. (That said, when a candidate has his facts wrong, it’s legitimate for a moderator to correct him, as Brokaw did when Al Sharpton erroneously claimed that President Bush had said that he represents “a Christian view against the Islamic.”)

Next, Brokaw took a dubious page out of Peter Jennings’s playbook from the last debate — by trying to hold a candidate responsible for the positions of those who have endorsed him. Speaking to Gov. Dean, Brokaw noted that South Carolinians he has spoken to are upset about NAFTA; that Al Gore endorsed Dean; and that Gore was an architect of NAFTA.

Say what? Are we now to expecting candidates to defend every position of everyone who has endorsed them?

Campaign Desk certainly hopes not.

Brokaw tripped up a third time when he brought up the subject of Wesley Clark’s position on 9/11. Brokaw said, “General Clark, you’ve been quite outspoken in blaming the Bush administration for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. You better…”

That garbled syntax sounded to our startled ears — and Clark’s — as if Brokaw was claiming that Clark had charged the president with carrying out the attacks on the World Trade Center towers.

Silly as that is, there’s reason to be concerned about it. Clark’s — and Howard Dean’s — statements about what the president knew about 9/11 have already caused controversy in the campaign. So it’s of particular importance that the topic be addressed with precision.

Brokaw’s performance wasn’t all bad. He did a better job than the moderators of last week’s New Hampshire debate at staying out of the limelight, and at giving the candidates a forum to lay out their positions. He also managed to generate some real, substantive differences of opinion between them. But Brokaw in general is usually so smooth and self-assured that it’s particularly disconcerting to see him botch three in a row.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.