For Senator Barack Obama, Tuesday night’s debate among the Democratic candidates was to be a make-or-break situation. Either Obama gets in Hillary Clinton’s face and exposes her real agenda, or else his role as her chief contender becomes significantly eroded. Well, the debate is over, and the popularity polls average out to 45% for Hillary and 23% for Obama. Obviously something went wrong.

MSNBC’s Howard Fineman, on the morning of the debate, listed several things Obama had to do to “derail” Hillary. Among them: highlight the difference on issues between them; show she is a pawn of the special interests; and retain his “good guy” image. One of the main distinctions between them is that Obama was against the war in Iran from the very outset; Hillary voted to send in the troops, then changed her mind. Obama was so mannerly in broaching the topic that Hillary managed to soft-shoe her way out of that one.,

Before Obama could get to the issue, former senator John Edwards renewed his blunt accusation that Hillary is a pawn of the Washington establishment. Edwards, whose chances of winning the nomination are clearly fading, seemed satisfied to accept another Clinton sidestep. As Howard Fineman points out, while Hillary appeared to be defined as another “business as usual” politician, the label was stuck on her by Edwards, not Obama.

Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News was quick to note that the questioners, NBC’s Brian Williams and Tim Russert, “mainly asked questions of Mrs. Clinton’s rivals designed to bring out sharp attacks on her.” Indeed, it seems as though Hillary had twice as much face time as any of the other aspirants, even if she appeared to be on the defensive a good deal of the time. By the time the debate ended, the differences between Obama and Clinton seemed insubstantial.

Perhaps the strongest joust against Hillary was the statement that “if people want the status quo, Senator Clinton is your candidate.” Unfortunately for Obama, it came from Edwards. Yes, Hillary at times seemed tough, often glowering at the opponent for making combative, sometimes scrappy charges against her. And at other times she appeared to be stoic, even acting, according to the Los Angeles Times, “as though Clinton seemed to be impatient for the primary campaign to be over so she could turn her attention to the general election.” In fact Hillary even boasted at one point that “the Republicans have displayed a constant obsession with me.”

So we are judging two different events here: whether Obama was true to his pledge to get tough with Hillary and score some points; and if Hillary avoided the minefields and traps set for her and thus disarmed the ordnance that could later be used against her. The answer to the first event is no, Obama did not “get tough” as he promised and, instead, appeared to be cautious and less forceful than Hillary’s other protagonists on the stage. As to the second issue, Hillary appeared to weather all of the obtrusive and hostile remarks sent her way, even when Brian Williams and Tim Russert stepped out of their roles as moderators and became contentious questioners.

At one point Russert asked Clinton whether she would “allow the National Archives to release the documents about your communications with the President, and the advice you gave?” Clinton answered she was not allowed to make such a decision now. Russert then asked if she would lift her husband’s ban on releasing their correspondence. Hillary’s reply was that Bill Clinton had asked the National Archives not to do anything until 2012, and that it remains a presidential mandate.

After all is said and done, writes Gail Collins in The New York Times, “the good news for Hillary’s side is that nobody seems really poised to take her place in the front of the field. Barack Obama continues to be a calm, measured, let’s-all-work-together presence, reminiscent of – Oh Lord! – Joe Lieberman.”

– Chase.Hamil

 

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