Veteran New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney takes a stab at defending Charlie Gibson’s and George Stephanopoulos’ handling of last week’s ABC-sponsored Democratic debate in an online column headlined, “What Should Be The Purpose of a Presidential Debate?”

Nagourney never explicitly answers his own question but he does give some hints (about his priorities, at least).

Nagourney concedes that Gibson’s and Stephanopoulos’ more tabloid questions involved “isolated episodes that may say little about Mr. Obama and may pale in significance compared to the weightier issues facing the country” — but “Even so, they are the kind of things that Republicans will no doubt try to use against Mr. Obama” and, he concludes, “if nothing else the ABC moderators gave Mr. Obama a hint of his general election campaign — and Democratic voters, trying to figure out who their strongest candidate might be, a hint of how he might weather such attacks.”

Hmm. And I guess that (somehow prepping the Democratic front-runner for GOP general election attacks on relatively insignificant matters) is “purpose”-ful enough for someone who believes that “one of the critical questions of this election is whether the lines of attacks that worked for Republicans against Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s are still potent, or whether Americans are now inured to them — whether the problems facing the country will transcend that kind of politics.”

One of the “critical questions” of election 2008 is one of political strategy (and Gibson and Stephanopoulos were helpfully testing the “potency” of this strategy) — and, as an afterthought, whether “the problems facing the country,” generically speaking, have any hope of having a hearing in the face of said strategy?

As far as that last part goes, it’s not looking so good.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.