Vantage Point

On substance: Clinton. On style: Obama.

You cannot, said Chesterton, love a thing without wanting to fight for it. If Clinton was the underdog tonight, she kept the upper dog on the defensive for most of the night. Near the end, for example, when Clinton interrupted and badgered him into denouncing the Nation of Islam leader even more fulsomely.

Toward the end, Obama made three fairly significant hedges, the first of which being about the Russian President to be, Dimitry Medvevev. Although Clinton had trouble pronouncing his name -- Medvevev, it was clear that she knew it, and that she was at least cursorily familiar with the details of the election and the challenge it poses for the U.S. As NBC News’s hounds noted, Obama appeared to defer to her. If you were watching closely, you might have wondered whether Obama had received a briefing recently on Russia, rather than a recitation of the case against George W. Bush’s relationship with Putin.

Before that there were was his weird language about the endorsement by Louis Farrakhan. There are some things you just don’t do in American politics: calling Farrakhan “minister Farrakhan” is one of them. He’s been declared persona non grata by everyone in the mainstream of our politics. It seemed to take badgering by Clinton for Obama to reject it explicitly (although he did not embrace it and had distanced himself from it before). I don't think Obama's at fault here... I think the circumstances conspired against him... but it just didn't sound right...

And before that there was Obama’s hedging on public financing in the general election.

I suspect, though, that Clinton’s intemperate complaint about the NBC’s debate reflecting the Saturday Night Live parody will be what the morning shows dissect and dissect, and beyond that, there was really nothing else to commend to the new viewer. Ohioans concerned about NAFTA learned that Clinton changed her mind about the efficacy of the trade agreement and about her promise to threaten to pull out of the treaty unless Canada and Mexico renegotiate its terms; me too, said Obama. The two candidates fought to a draw over mandates; there doesn’t seem to be a truth there one can actually find. Obama had some strong moments, particularly, as usual, on Iraq. His two best lines: how Clinton was responsible for getting the country "into the ditch" that both of them were trying to get out of, and how she was ready from day one to "enable" Bush to take the country to war.

I hesitate to point out her body language, if only because I can easily read too much into it. But she seemed tense, remorseful, sad, at times… her neck seemed leaden; her voice had an edge that all to often crossed the boundary between assertive and plaintive.

Obama seemed more solicitous and upbeat. Even as he was defensive, he was passive-defensive; he was oh-so-cool; one e-mailer, recalling Twain, called him a Christian with four aces. He seemed to be listening to Hillary Stagg with one ear and to Hillary Clinton with the other.

Bottom line: did this, the 20th debate, change much? Probably not.

Presented by

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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