Call It A Comeback?

Tonight’s debate will probably stop the talk of a huge momentum swing away from Hillary Clinton. Though a little overly conducted at times, Clinton did not sound any obvious false notes, nor did she strike confusing or conflicting notes, and, as a bonus, she got an entire minute and a half to make her rah-rah appeal to women. Clinton had the most at stake tonight, and she arguably gave her most commanding performance to date.

As for lines to use against the Dems, Danny Diaz and the crew at the RNC have little to pick and choose from, and the PH level of the debate was noticeably basic after an opening exchange that Clinton smoothly handled (while Obama, seemingly surprised that Clinton turned the tables on him, looked a little rattled). Clinton’s opponents seemed to calculating their pressure, unsure of how she’d respond, and not wanting to sound grating or mean. Toward the end, when Obama compared Clinton’s answer on a Social Security question to Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, Clinton responded by pointing out how the general thrust of her position was exactly like Obama…dismissing his taunts with a substantive response.

Richardson had his best performance of all the previous debates. On mental health, on veterans’ health, on energy, on trade policy – he was clear, concise, natural-sounding, in command of his answers, and persuasive. Viewers leaned that he was a governor who solved problems, who wasn’t in Congress, who has clear differences with the rest of the field on a variety of issues, and who sounded reasonable. Where has this Bill Richardson been?

On driver’s licenses for immigrants, Hillary Clinton was given a pass for her sudden discovery of a position. Asked a yes or no question by Wolf Blitzer, Obama did answer the question with a “yes, but” -- but Blitzer didn’t believe that…in part because Obama then said, “I am not proposing that’s what we do…” and then, theatrically said: giving the viewer the impression that Obama was being fuzzy. It was a fun moment for the Clinton boiler room, but it wasn’t deathly; if the exchange had confirmed something about Obama’s inexperience, then it would have hurt him. But because it arguably reflected a weakness of Clinton’s, it helps Clinton more than it hurts Obama.

Obama elsewhere was strong, giving eloquent and learned answers on China and trade, questioning Wolf Blitzer on premises at times, returning to his campaign themes of possibility, optimism and hope. At moments, Obama was overshadowed by Edwards, who had an audience-pleasing exchange with the mother of an Iraq war veteran whose son feared being deployed to Iran – an interjection forced Obama to concede that he had not been in Washington for the vote. Edwards was Edwards; his campaign believes there was a seismic shift in the race tonight, with Edwards, Obama and Clinton all on equal footing. Eh…

The Democrats spent a lot of time debating debates: what’s appropriate, what’s not, what questions are fair, who’s ganging up on who, who gets more time, whether the party is hurt by back-and-forths.

Chris Dodd seemed to be completely in the background tonight. Not his fault -- he got almost no question.