Debate Postview: Updated

The differences between Sen. Hillary Clinton and her chef rivals were drawn out in sharp relief tonight, perhaps more so than in any previous debate.

Clinton acknowledged -- and demanded that her rivals acknowledge -- that withdrawing from Iraq would be a lot harder than the party's soundbites would suggest.

And she refused an invitation to cater to the left wing of her party by saying she'd meet with out-of-step world leaders in the first year of her presidency.

"Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year," she said. "I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are."

Barack Obama answered without hesitation -- he'd meet "without preconditions" with the leaders of Syria, North Korea, Iraq, Cuba and Venezuela.

"And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them," he said. "We've been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because
they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses."

The debate's setting and staging detracted from the seriousness of those exchanges. There were musical questions, sotto voice questions, skits about Al Gore, kind-of-funny campaign videos, and other visual paraphernalia. Anderson Cooper got to ask some follow ups. Mike Gravel complained about his time.

Tonight's debate was supposed to be different, but many of the questions were a variation on the same theme: how do we, the voters, know that you guys, the candidates, are for real? In that way, the format gave a lift to the change agents.

And there are two of them in the Democatic race: Obama and Clinton. To borrow a Harry Potter analogy, "change agent" is the snitch and Obama and Clinton are competing seekers. (That Hillary Clinton is seen as a change agent is remarkable at this point, attributable to her status as a Democrat, the earliness of the race, or the hard work of her campaign. It raises the question: change from what? The old order? Or just President Bush?)

The third-to-last question, in fact, was just that, from a guy named Cris Nolan. Wouldn't Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton represent continuity, not change? "I think it is a problem that Bush was elected in 2000," Clinton began. She asked to be judged on her own merits. Obama: "I think every question we've heard you see cynicism about the capacity to change this country. The question for the American people is: who has the track record of bringing about change?"

"Big change. Real change. Bold change," says John Edwards, who cast his two opponents as "our insiders" in the sense that the Democrats shouldn't exchange "our insiders for their insiders."

Do voters really want change? Five leading candidates took a private jet to the debate. Richardson wants all residual troops out of Iraq. That's a change. Joe Biden wants to intervene in Darfur. That's a big change. Dennis Kucinich wants a department of piece. There's more change in the lower tiers than in the higher tiers. So maybe it's not about change.

A brief report card in no particular order:

Hillary Clinton -- If you want to know how a Clinton presidency might differ from other Democrats, study this debate carefully.

Joe Biden -- on the ball about Iraq and foreign policy, especialy Darfur. He loves South Carolina and this debate loved him.

John Edwards -- He seemed on his game, although a noisy audience deprived him of the chance to impress a questioner on gay rights. His calling out of audience members didn't seem forced.

Barack Obama -- Debates are not his format, although he threw some good sound bites tonight and generally comported himself well.

Mike Gravel -- he complained about how little time he was getting.... and took up a lot of time in the process.

Dennis Kucinich -- he made little progress tonight. He had few friends in the audience.

Chris Dodd -- his best debate so far.

Bill RIchardson -- he did his best to draw contrasts with the frontrunners on Iraq.