By James Macharia
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Raila Odinga, the frontrunner in Kenya's presidential election, taunted his rival Uhuru Kenyatta in a debate on Monday, asking how he would be able to rule from the Hague, where Kenyatta goes on trial shortly on charges of crimes against humanity.
The presidential television debate - the first ever held in the country - failed to produce a clear winner, but gave an early taste of what is expected to be a highly-charged contest to run East Africa's economic powerhouse.
Former finance minister Kenyatta has been summoned to appear at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague a month after the March election to face charges he helped direct ethnic clashes that erupted after a disputed 2007 vote.
If Kenyatta wins this election, his first presidential trip could be to appear in the dock in the Netherlands, alongside his running mate, William Ruto, who has also been charged over the violence. Both deny wrongdoing.
"It will pose serious challenges to run a government by (the internet phone service) Skype from the Hague. It is not practical," said Kenya's current prime minister Odinga who has a narrow lead over Kenyatta according to polls.
During the debate between all eight presidential candidates, Kenyatta played down the challenge posed by the global court.
"If Kenyans choose to elect me, it means they have confidence in my ability to address the ICC issue and lead the country. I will be able to clear my name at ICC and at the same time implement my manifesto," Kenyatta told the moderator.
The March 4 poll will be the first under a new constitution and the first since the 2007 violence that killed more than 1,200 people.
All sides have promised there will not be a repeat of the ethnic tensions that fuelled the bloodshed and the candidates on Monday denied their support was based on tribal allegiance.
"NO CLEAR LOSER"
"I don't think there was any clear loser," said Kenyan politician Abdikadir Mohamed, an analyst at the debate.
Lawyer Paul Muite, one of the lower-ranked candidates by most polls, said President Mwai Kibaki and Odinga, the two rivals in the 2007 vote, should face charges at the ICC.
Martha Karua, the only female candidate, accused politicians of leading "poor" Kenyans to fight in the last vote.
"Politicians do not fight. They shake hands and laugh, as you have seen us doing here. They should not be allowed to call on Kenyans to rise against each other," said the lawyer and former cabinet minister.
The debate was widely followed on Twitter, with the hashtag #KEDebate13.
"I think if anything it made my decision clearer. It gave me a chance to confirm about what I believed about the candidates," said Angela Kamuyu, a university student.
Interest in the debate flagged badly as candidates resorted to well-worn rhetoric on how they would tackle insecurity, government corruption, a tattered health system and education.
"First part of debate interesting, dealt with real issues. Second part downright boring. Overall: debate did not take us forward or backwards," political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi said on the online messaging service.
A second and final debate will be held on February 25, focusing on the economy, land, devolution and foreign policy.
Kenya's High Court will rule on Friday in a case in which rights groups have filed a suit challenging Kenyatta and Ruto's suitability for elected office, given their charges at the ICC.
(Additional reporting by Njuwa Maina; Editing by Andrew Heavens)