Occupied elsewhere on Tuesday night, I watched a recording of the Democrats' Philadelphia debate, and by the time I got around to it I had already read a lot of the commentary. That may bias my view, but the consensus seems right to me: Hillary made a hash of it. Under real pressure from the other candidates for the first time, the charm slipped. She was tetchy, evasive and most of all uncomfortable. I recall writing of the first debate that the other candidates deferred to her, and that she relaxed into the leadership role. No deference on Tuesday--far from it--and no relaxation either. Once or twice her jaws were clenched so tight I thought something would snap.
Here's a sample on the issue of driver's licences for illegal immigrants, though in defence of her stumbling performance in this instance I have to say it was not an easy question. (Chris Dodd evaded as much as she did, but got away with it. "There are ways of dealing with that." Such as what? Tim Russert took Hillary to task for her equivocation but let Dodd off the hook.)
So who won? Not Obama, though he did get better as the debate went on. His delivery is still hesitant and unconfident. His mannerisms are getting tiresome. He is over-rehearsed: he defaults too obviously and too quickly to grand pre-cooked lines (and improbably lame jokes). Edwards, on this occasion, was the winner, and by some distance. Much less waffle than Obama, far more focused and concise, and much more relaxed than either of the two front-runners. Of course, unlike Clinton, he wasn't getting stamped on by everybody else.
The question is, when Edwards does well, who does that hurt more, Clinton or Obama? On balance, it may make Clinton even safer for the nomination. Still, if Giuliani was watching, he must have loved every minute. Not many people bother to watch these debates, but this time those who did are finding it easier than before to imagine how Hillary might still screw this up..