A truly wide-open debate, with personal attacks between the two leading contenders -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- that opened up new avenues of attack.
Obama seemed to handle the incoming flak well, except for his failure to concisely explain the "Present" votes that are apparently part of normal legislative process in Illinois. He was also the victim -- like Hillary was in the New Hampshire debate -- of some double-team attacks, including the "Present" votes. The question is whether viewers are paying attention to the details of the debate, or rather taking a more general view of whether a candidate (in this case, Obama) is strong enough to handle the pressure of a campaign -- or office.
On the health care debate, the apparent failure of Obama's plan to explicitly start out with 100% coverage, also seems to be a debating point for Hillary (and Edwards, for that matter). Again, however, getting Obama to engage in any of the policy details -- as opposed to a more general discussion of how to achieve his stated goal of a "working majority" in Congress.
Hillary's core argument is that she is up to the attacks that the Republicans will bring, because she has been handling them for the "past 16 years." Obama responded with a strong criticism, from someone "who will say anything to get elected."
Obama took on directly the fundamental question in the debate: what is the legacy of the Clinton (42) presidency? In a Democratic primary, it is extremely difficult to criticize Bill Clinton, the first two-term President since FDR. Yet while the risks are immense to Obama, he may have no choice -- if he allows Hillary to frame the politics of the 1990s as successful, it may be impossible to prevent a third Clinton term, at least in the Democratic primary. Further, Obama may have needed to be sure that SC voters -- and especially the large black contingent -- would understand that he would stand up to both Clintons, and for himself.
The national press corps seems to be coalescing around a narrative that has the Clintons (especially the ex-POTUS) doing a good job of lowering expectations. In both New Hampshire and Nevada, the press was surprised by a positive Clinton showing. But with the accelerated primary schedule -- and with Super Tuesday looming -- we are into uncharted waters here.
If the delegates are awarded pro rata (as all Democratic delegates are now awarded, and not with 'winner-take-all'), it is probably impossible for Hillary to have a knock-out on Super Tuesday. Although about half the delegates will be selected on a single day (February 5th), it is possible that the split will reflect the early results -- very close between Hillary and Obama. And with both Hillary (with 210 delegates (including superdelegates, or 10%) and Obama (123 delegates, or 6%) only a small part of the way towards to the nomination, it is possible that neither will be at more than 35-40% of the way.
One factor that has not been fully explored: the role that Latino voters will play. With Governor Bill Richardson out of the race, there is no 'natural' home for Latinos, and that may have played a role in the results in Nevada. Many February 5th states will have significant Latino populations. Finally, there are the tensions between black and brown communities, which differ in different parts of the country.
Edwards, although often reduced to being a bit player in tonight's debate, seemed to be the one who stood above the fray, although when he did jump in (on the "Present" votes and the health care debate). Whether that helps him substantively, after a poor showing (4%) in Nevada, is a question yet to be answered.