The pundits marked Derby Weekend this Sunday by helping the horserace for the Democratic presidential nomination get underway.

Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, signaled both the starts of the presidential sweepstakes and his plan to play media kingmaker by inviting would-be candidate Sen. John Edwards,  D-N.C., for a chat.

Edwards, a fresh face basking in the afterglow of positive portraits in U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, followed Secretary of State Colin Powell as Russert’s guest.

No doubt other Democratic aspirants will now seek the same billing as Edwards on future Meet the Press installments. Other shows will likely begin showcasing presidential prospects. Candidates who may have hoped to keep their options open might be forced to declare their intentions early, lest they be left behind in the parade.

All of this early jockeying might even lead to pundit nirvana: Democrats criticizing each other in an effort to carve out a rationale for their candidacies. That’s the kind of ratings-grabber that pundits love.

The actual interview demonstrated Russert’s ability to both flatter and grill his subjects. He offered the junior senator from North Carolina softball questions on the Middle East, then asked tough questions on taxes and the economy before backing off. He let Edwards end with his "values" message about hard-working parents and his record of helping the "little guy."

Edwards said little that was memorable, except perhaps "I believe deeply in prosperity." When asked by Russert, "What would a President Edwards do?" he tellingly failed to question the premise before answering. All in all, though, he got a prime opportunity and probably performed well enough to maintain his "momentum" and worry other candidates.

Terence Smith, moderating the Shields and Brooks segment on The News Hour, remarked, "It’s 30 months to the presidential election and there should be a law against discussing it this early." Obviously, Smith is not a full-time pundit show host.

Exchange of the Week

It happened on This Week, when the roundtable of George Stephanopolous, Cokie Roberts, George Will, and Sam Donaldson discussed arming pilots. Some highlights:

Stephanopolous: "If the pilots feel safer, I think the people flying will, too."

Roberts: "I don’t feel safer. Airplanes are one of the few places I feel safe from guns! Some pilot who’s gone off his nut for some reason, running around with a gun, does not make me feel safe."

Will: "Support for pilots being armed increases as people have more and more experience with so-called airport security …Do you or do you not wish the pilots on Sept. 11 had been armed? Yes or no, Sam?"

Peace Something or Another

Pundits poked fun at the administration’s contortions in characterizing the upcoming talks on the Middle East:

"They couldn't figure out what to call it. Is it a meeting? Is it a conference? Is it a confab? Is it a bird, a plane, Spider-Man?" — Margaret Carlson, Time, on Capital Gang

Bill Clinton, Unilateralist

Discussing the possibility that many countries would take part in the Middle East conference, Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard said on Fox News Sunday, "For all the Republicans attack Clinton for being the multilateralist, Clinton never invited the Europeans and the U.N. [into Middle East negotiations]."

Bill Clinton, Talk Show Host

The pundits didn’t think much of reports that former President Clinton might host a talk show:

"This sure as hell ain't Habitat for Humanity. I think it will be a terrible mistake...there is something unelevating about it." — Mark Shields, columnist, on The News Hour

"Who does this brilliant man listen to, and how do such matters even get on his radar screen?" — Al Hunt, Wall Street Journal, on Capital Gang

"I think this is an inspired idea. He has found one of the few areas of American life that he could enter without further lowering the tone of it." — George Will, on This Week

"A talk show doesn’t make any sense. It’s not going to happen." George Stephanopolous, on This Week

Farm Bill Follies

Pundits weren’t crazy about the farm bill that passed in the House of Representatives:

"It is a horrible bill. This is just bad economics." — Bob Novak, Chicago Sun-Times, on Capital Gang

"This is a terrible bill." — Al Hunt, on Capital Gang

"It's a bill of bipartisan pork. And every time I hear the word family farm, you know, I reach for my wallet, because you know they're just lying." — Margaret Carlson, on Capital Gang

"This bill to my mind is as bad a bill that has come down our purview in the last year, surpassing the House stimulus package, which I thought was unsurpassable in its awfulness." — David Brooks, The Weekly Standard, on The News Hour

Mailbag

Last week’s column prompted a combination correction/broadside. Mike Grace of Royal Oak, Mich., wrote:

Maybe you should go chase the golf ball on Sundays. Cardinal George may not be a spin doctor like Father. McBrien (not O'Brien, maybe you were watching Knute Rockne-All American), always the first liberal voice the media calls when they want to reinforce their views of where they think the church should be going. But anyone who wasn't looking for a sound byte clearly understood what Cardinal George was saying. I don't blame him for being curt with Russert.

It was Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame who appeared on Meet the Press. Punditwatch regrets the error.

Jon Aronson wrote:

The Cardinals are too busy trying to maintain a facade. Either they change or the American Catholic Church is going to be born to replace the Roman for very good reasons.

Sandra Lee wrote:

The years of continual sexual molestation of children, by the very priests the children are taught to confide and trust, are moral, spiritual, judicial and law enforcement outrages. Who really is the pervert: the morally decadent/deviant priest or the twisted diocesan authority who transfers the deviant priest from one parish to another parish?

Finally, Margaret Frederick wrote:

It must give you "Men" and "Ladies" of the media great glee to declare open season on the Catholic Church. You have been waiting for the perfect time to unleash the jokes and the ridicule you have all been dying to repeat. Ah, you get an A-plus.

I hope Punditwatch is not considered a "man of the media." I report, you decide, so to speak…

Will Vehrs is an economic developer in Richmond, Va. Unable to obsess on golf, fishing or a weed-free lawn, he chose to stalk the weekend talk show pundits and their syndicated print brethren. His "Punditwatch" column appears in Tony Adragna's Quasipundit.

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