Hillary bounces back

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She did well in Thursday night's debate, winning by a mile I'd say, partly because it was evidently a pro-Clinton crowd. Her bad performance in Philadelphia is, for the moment anyway, expunged. Her best (if not new) one-liner was to say, in reply to a question about her campaign's playing of the gender card, that she was being attacked not because she was a woman but because she was ahead. Good stuff, and it drew cheers. (The biggest of the night, I think, except for the refusal to countenance merit pay for teachers. Avoiding that is apparently a top priority in Las Vegas, along with prompt withdrawal from Iraq.) She looked relaxed and once more in charge.

Obama at one point had the crowd laughing at him, and at another Edwards was actually booed. The laughs came when Obama--incredibly--made a complete mess of the question that threw Hillary in the previous debate. The candidates were asked whether they were in favor of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, yes or no. In the previous debate Hillary waffled this way and that and in the end refused to answer. She was punished for that in the debate and then again by the media: how like her to squirm and evade. In this debate, she simply said she was not in favor: one word, "No." So Obama decided to fill the vacuum by failing to answer the question, at length, three or four times--just like Hillary last time. Remarkable. Asked yet again, "are you in favor?" his answer was: "Yes. [Pause.] But...", at which part of the crowd cracked up. So much for "Clear Answers To Tough Questions", which I think was supposed to be his theme for the evening. (Incidentally, Kucinich had a novel view on the subject of illegal immigrants: there is no such thing. We must all say "undocumented workers" instead. Problem solved.)

Richardson gave the best answer to the driver's license question. He said he was in favor of granting them, had done so as governor of New Mexico, and explained why. His reasons seemed quite sensible, albeit politically unsellable. On a different question Richardson slit his other wrist, and gave an answer that was the worst of the night on every measure. "Which comes first, national security, or human rights [in Pakistan]?" He himself had prompted the question, I think by getting a bit muddled in an earlier answer. Wolf Blitzer pounced, demanding clarification, and instead of correcting himself, Richardson dug himself in. Human rights come first, national security second. I think I heard one person clapping. I almost joined in out of sympathy. Imagine taking that position into the general election. Well, no need, obviously.

What turned the crowd against Edwards was his answer on the "gender card" question. There's nothing personal about my attacks on Hillary, he said, before going on to accuse her of representing all that was most foul about the Washington political scene. He might have carried a different crowd, I expect, but not this one. They did not like it. Hillary hit back by accusing him of playing the Republicans' game. Applause.

Also notable: Hillary scored points against both Obama and Edwards on health care. She pointed out that Obama's plan, unlike hers, does not provide fully universal coverage. Obama replied that hers does not either, since her individual mandate is not really enforceable. That was true but he was hesitant and ineffective. Hillary's plan at least sets out to be universal. And in case Obama might be planning to adjust his policy, she also managed to remind the audience that back in 2004, Edwards had not been for universal coverage--but she said she was pleased he had changed his mind and now agreed with her.

I don't know whether these debates matter. They shouldn't. The whole circus is ridiculous. But if they do, Hillary won. A sympathetic audience makes all the difference--but still, it was an impressive performance.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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