The Not-So-Great Debate

Hillary won by not losing. That's the bottom line takeaway from last night's low-risk/low-reward Democratic Party love-in ... I mean, conversation ... uh, CNN debate between Hillary-Billary and Obama-Wan Kenobi. It was, in the pundits' words (accurate for a change!) very "calm, civil, cordial, and sedate," a non-confrontational confrontation wherein the previously sharp edges were all softened, and most of the differences blurred.

There was little fire and certainly no fireworks, as the overall tone of harmony and unity on deliberate display led one to suspect that Party elders and officials from both campaigns clearly must have agreed in advance that the time had finally come to stop standing in a circle and shooting and instead turn their fire on George Bush and his presumptive heirs -- where it really belonged in the first place!

Obama's remark that he was "friends with Hillary before this campaign, and I will be friends with Hillary after it" epitomized the evening. Where there differences were addressed, they were highly predictable, focus-grouped and campaign-tried-and-true. Hillary ran out her experience trope: remember, she's the one who will be "Ready from Day One." Obama politely countered with his judgment mantra, nicely phrased as "Right from Day One" to underscore his anti-war street cred.

Both aimed various sallies at the crucial California constituency of Latinos -- with Obama repeatedly trumpeting his endorsement by Ted Kennedy and questioning Hillary on her since-corrected political misstep of supporting the ill-fated Eliot Spitzer driving- licenses-for-the-undocumented plan. She was for it before she was against it, soto speak ...

When the two candidates had finally finished their restrained, wonkish interchange, CNN trotted out the "chief strategists" on both sides to reiterate their candidate's major points once again in a thankfully truncated fashion. David Axelrod naturally and effectively hammered Hillary on her indefensible Iraq position; a less-composed and effective Mark Penn relied on clichés to tell us:

    1. Hillary will be ready on Day One (again!)

    2. Universal health care is important

    3. So is "comprehensive immigration reform"

    4. And the economy

    5. And--oh yeah - Iraq...

Penn in fact came off as incredibly lame on the subject of Iraq, thereby compounding his candidate's problems with the issue. (Note to Hillary's people: Why do you send out this overweight, sweating and hardly mediagenic guy to "spin" the press and the public? He's terrible at it!)

What's it all mean? Clearly the Democratic faithful will be happy with either of the Last Candidates Standing as their standard-bearer in November. (Of course by now, most of them are so sick of Republican rule they would welcome a corpse as a candidate if convinced it would win.) But overall, this was Hillary's debate -- and now it's her race -- to lose, and at the very least, last night was a tie. Obama remains the neophyte challenger who needs to make up ground - and not much ground shifted.

So Hillary won by not losing -- and Obama lost by not winning. Simply appearing presidential--he certainly has grown into at least looking the part -- wasn't, and isn't, enough to put him over the top. In order to continue his momentum and vault into the lead, he needed to show that there are large differences between him and Hillary on crucial issues - and other than on Iraq, he failed to do so.

So yes, Barack "won" on Iraq -- but in light of the plummeting economy, the issue seems to be fading in relative importance to both the candidates and the voters. Meanwhile, Hillary obviously "won" on health care, by clearly positioning herself as the one candidate with a plan to ensure truly universal coverage. She generally "won" on substance as well; he triumphed again on style -- and many argue that voters base their choices more on personality than actual politics.

Who will win on Super-Duper Tuesday? Will the Amazing Race continue to go beyond? Might we eventually see a Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton "Dream Ticket?"

Stay tuned, as they used to say back in the day!

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