Friday, February 1, 2008

Debate Patty-cake

After the fireworks and hard feelings that surrounded the South Carolina primary, last night's Los Angeles debate -- the last one before Super Tuesday -- was like a game of patty-cake.

From the opening moments, when Obama politely held Hillary's chair for her, to the final image, where the two had a quiet joke before turning to shake hands with the panel and greet the crowd, the tone was civil and -- one might say -- senatorial.

After close to $200 million dollars raised, and attacks on both sides, as a wag might say, Where is the outrage?

It is a rare two-person debate where both candidates believe that a polite exchange serves their interest. Usually, the front-runner wants a gaffe-free debate, knowing that only a large mistake -- or a Quayle-moment -- can make a huge difference. And the underdog needs to 'shake things up', letting the chips fall where they may.

Hillary (and her staff) clearly believed that she leads in most national polls, she needs to improve her "likeability", and that a non-contentious debate served her interests. And Obama (and his staff) clearly believed that her lead is shrinking overall, and in the first two-person-only debate, he would gain stature (and exposure and therefore support) simply by standing side-by-side with her.

One of the candidates is correct, and one is not.

As for the substance, Obama decided to get out ahead of Hillary's strength, health care. He also handled immigration well, until he stumbled into her previous "co-sponsorship" of "comprehensive immigration reform."

But is was Iraq, in the second hour, where the differences were made clear. Perhaps because of the conversational tone, Hillary decided to try explain -- rather than gloss over -- her 2002 vote for authorization, claiming that she received "personal assurances" from the White House that force was just a threat.

I believe that it is abundantly clear that the case that was outlined on behalf of going to the resolution -- not going to war, but going to the resolution -- was a credible case. I was told personally by the White House that they would use the resolution to put the inspectors in. I worked with Senator Levin to make sure we gave them all the intelligence so we would know what's there.

As Wolf Blitzer put it, such reliance could be seen as "naive."

Obama then closed the argument: Hillary says she will is experienced, and will be ready "on Day One." But the question is who will be right on Day One.

As noted before, it's unlikely that Super Tuesday will decide much of anything. Both candidates will gain delegates, and neither, it seems will get to that magic majority. This contest will move well into the spring, and it appears that even though Hillary has more institutional support, her chances of winning have peaked. Her best chance now is to "survive" Obama's primary challenge.

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