John Edwards is starting to look downright appealing.

John Edwards is starting to look downright appealing.

The former North Carolina senator appeared bemused during a televised debate Monday night at being overlooked while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went at each other, attacking one another's voting records and professional backgrounds.

"There's a third person in this debate," Edwards joked at one point. On Tuesday, he described himself as representing "the grown-up wing of the Democratic Party."

Edwards has a point. The unseemly bickering between the front-runners did little to endear either one to the voters they must attract if they are to win the nomination or the presidency.

On policy matters, Clinton and Obama differ very little. So their attempts to separate themselves from the other candidate go to matters of experience and qualifications to hold the office.

In doing so, they risk alienating the very voters they seek to persuade. Voters don't want to see the political equivalent of mud wrestling; they want discussions of the issues.

That reality was highlighted in several reader comments posted on the CNN Web site under an account of the debate. Several comments indicated the poster had been leaning toward Clinton or Obama, but had decided to vote for Edwards.

Clinton and Obama should take a lesson from that reaction, as well as from their fellow candidates in the Republican field.

The Republicans, for the most part, have managed to stick to the issues rather than issue personal attacks. Of course, that may be because the GOP hopefuls represent a wide range of positions on several issues, in contrast to the more cohesive Democrats.

In any case, the eruption of bitter sniping on national television does not bode well for the election year still ahead. November is a long way off, and voters will be weary of the campaign soon enough without having to endure the kind of angry sparring on display Monday.