The Democratic debate

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Interesting. Until the last question, I was getting ready to say that this was the first debate that Obama had won outright.

The format, allowing for longer answers than usual, suited him well. He was relaxed and assured. And some of the questions (especially the ones from John King, I thought) were more probing than average, inviting the kind of considered response that plays to Obama's strength. He did well on the "commander-in-chief" question, too. Oddly, Hillary ignored that one to begin with, preferring to hammer away (with diminishing effect, I thought) on health mandates. When the national-security question was put again, she was not strong, settling for a quick tour of recent events--Cuba, Kosovo, Pakistan--as if to show she reads the foreign-news pages, glancing off lots of specifics but saying nothing about them. Obama answered the question in a broader way, as he does, but this time seemed firmer and more authoritative--"I would not be running for president if I thought I wasn't ready to be commander-in-chief".

And I also thought Hillary made a terrible error over the Obama-is-a-plagiarist nonsense. When asked about this accusation, a patently unsuccessful stratagem, instead of walking way from it, she dug herself deeper in, and even used a canned line about Obama's standing not for "change you can believe in" but "change you can xerox". Amazing. (I had to ask my wife if I had heard that correctly.) Hillary's supporters were embarrassed into silence; somebody booed. Obama swatted it away as the kind of stupid politics he is opposed to: case closed. For Hillary to make that mistake in the heat of the moment would have been bad enough. To rehearse it beforehand, as she evidently had, is simply inexplicable.

That was a bad moment, all right, but overall, you understand, she was doing pretty well. We know she is a great debater. It's just that Obama seeemed to be coming over unusually well in a setting he has often found discomfiting. And so, as I say, I had him as winner on points...until that last question.

"I'm wondering if both of you will describe what was the moment that tested you the most, that moment of crisis."

Obama's answer was only OK. He spoke about his life's "trajectory"--which, who could deny, has been pretty impressive. But Hillary's answer was superb. Also rehearsed, no doubt--but this time to magical effect. After alluding with a laugh to the fact that "everybody here knows I've lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life," she said that her problems didn't really amount to much. She described a recent visit to a hospital where she had met injured soldiers.

And I remember sitting up there and watching them come in. Those who could walk were walking. Those who had lost limbs were trying with great courage to get themselves in without the help of others. Some were in wheelchairs and some were on gurneys. And the speaker representing these wounded warriors had had most of his face disfigured by the results of fire from a roadside bomb.

You know, the hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.

And I resolved at a very young age that I'd been blessed and that I was called by my faith and by my upbringing to do what I could to give others the same opportunities and blessings that I took for granted.

That's what gets me up in the morning. That's what motivates me in this campaign.

Reading the words, it looks false. But delivering them, she was subdued, and seemed moved--as who would not be--and it came over as genuine. A brilliant, self-effacing answer: What are my moments of stress, compared with those facing so many ordinary Americans? What indeed. The stupid pettiness of the plagiarism charge, the strident bossiness of her prating on health care, so characteristically Clintonian, faded out. She stole it at the end, and the closing standing ovation was at least two-thirds for her.

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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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