First Thoughts: The Dem Debate

I was tempted to call this encounter a draw but I am mindful that there are no zero sum debates in presidential politics.

And twenty minutes of Iraq happened. And so I’ll give Obama the edge. Clinton was forced, for about 20 minutes, to recapitulate her vote on Iraq, over and over again. It was tough for her. She seemed to mire herself in the details of history.

Obama came into the debate moving up in polls across the country. His presence was, for the first 45 minutes or so, commanding. His opening statement was pitch perfect, segueing from praise for his rivals to the heart of his message. He ably made his case that this is a change election and the trajectory of change is steeper with Obama. His late-in-the-debate answer on Iraq was much better than hers.

Around 50 minutes in, the momentum swung towards Clinton. Obama was put on the defensive by Wolf Blitzer, who tried to goad him into calling Hillary Clinton unprincipled. Clinton, ah, found her voice, managing to show sympathy for undocumented workers and simultaneously pointing out how she took the effects of illegal immigration more seriously than Barack Obama. Clinton, in seeking a bipartisan solution, sounded more like Obama than Obama. Clinton’s answer plays well everywhere: among Latinos in California to conservative whites in Oklahoma.

I think Clinton’s goal tonight was to essentially humble herself before the Democratic Party that rebuked her so profoundly in South Carolina. Substance and niceness and graciousness were the order of the day. By her own standards she succeeded. She still doesn’t have a good answer to the dynasty question. I hear it a lot from voters on the trail. “We are all judged on our own merits” is a tautology.

Surprise: the time limits helped both Clinton and Obama. She had the time to turn every question back to her credentials and her projection of a humble, expansive, gracious character… she had the time to showcase her unmatched policy depth. Obama, who often chafes at soundbite answers, was able to speak in paragraphs and parentheticals and not have it count against him.

A few thoughts:

**Clinton mentioned John Edwards thrice, Obama mentioned him twice, but he also mentioned Bill Richardson, so, they’re equal.

** Also: Someone seemed to have planted the idea in Obama’s mind that he ought to start taking on John McCain, which he did, effectively.

** Obama really gives a great answer on the war, talking about the mindset differences between himself and Clinton and stressing the need for a date certain. He’s found a way to create daylight between himself and Clinton on withdrawing from Iraq.

** Watching the debate from the perspective of a Democrat, it’s easy to see why the party is so enthusiastic about its two candidate finalists.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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