In a good day for Obama, the two front-runners neutralize each other at CNN debate

Today was tough for Hillary Clinton. First came the series of polls showing Obama catching up with Clinton in key February 5th states. Now only a few points behind nationally, the Obama campaign is hoping to ride the momentum it got from its South Carolina victory and Kennedy's endorsement, which the campaign is milking as much as possible. Kennedy is in particular seeking to appeal to Latino voters by conducting interviews on Univision and Hispanic radio.

The Obama campaign also appears increasingly willing to go negative on Hillary and draw harsh contrasts. Consider these two new mailers that are being sent to February 5th households this week, one going after Hillary for her Iraq vote and the second blasting Hillary's health care plan for forcing "uninsured people to buy insurance, even if they can't afford it." The debate over mandates has been one of the clearest policy debates of the Democratic primary so far all year, and Obama's campaign has long believed that it is a winner for them despite the fact that many on the left (particularly Paul Krugman) have denounced his use of right-wing talking points on this issue.

Then the news emerged that Obama has raised $32 million dollar in January alone and attracted 170,000 new donors to his campaign. That is truly an astonishing figure that will the Clinton campaign will be unable to match. Obama's amazing financial shape has allowed the campaign to go all out in February 5th states. He is now running advertisements in 20 of the 22 states voting on Tuesday, while Clinton is following suit in only 12 contests, one of which is her home-state of New York. Now, the Obama campaign has started running ads in post-Super Tuesday states, which should serve as a reminder that it is unlikely that the race will be over come Tuesday night no matter what the results are. He is advertising in all the states that will be voting in the week following February 5th namely Louisiana, Nebraksa, Washington, Maine, Virginia, Maryland and DC.

In such a tense environment, one could have expected tonight's debate to take an acrimonious tone. After all, it was only a week ago that Obama and Clinton had unleashed against each other in South Carolina. Instead, both candidates sought to downplay their antagonism and prepare to confront John McCain, setting up for a civil debate that allows both candidates to come out of the night satisfied they achieved their goals.

The debate underscored just as much as Obama's decision to buy ads in February 9th and 12th states that the candidates expect the campaign to continue past Super Tuesday. Both camps expect Obama and Clinton to neutralize each other come Tuesday, each getting a large enough number of delegates to stay in the hunt for the nomination. And as such, both candidates wanted to keep their ammunition for future encounters.

This was the first debate with only the two of them on stage, since John Edwards only withdrew two days ago; which also means that there are no more white males in the hunt for the nomination. "Just by looking at us, you can tell, we are not more of the same. We will change our country,” said Clinton. Throughout the debate, both candidates emphasized their friendships and how much they ultimately agreed on. When Clinton declared, “We're having such a good time. We are. We are. We're having a wonderful time," there was little touch of sarcasm in her tone. Clinton and Obama were simply trying to show they were conscious that their real opponent was the Republican nominee and took swipes at John McCain. “Somewhere along the line, the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels,” said Obama, as both candidates derided McCain's assertion that the US could stay in Iraq for a hundred years plus (that quote, McCain's recent warning that "there will be more wars" are sure to be used by the Democratic nominee against the Arizona Senator later in the year).

The debate was mostly centered on policy and the candidates had ample time to develop their responses since there were no time limit restrictions. That allowed Hillary Clinton to shine, as she is always very comfortable discussing details of domestic policy. In the long discussion on health care, Clinton effectively criticized Obama for giving up too much ground from the beginning; starting positions are crucial to negotiations, she reminded viewers: "If you don't start by saying you're going to achieve universal health care, you will be nibbled to death." But Obama did not let Clinton get much of an advantage; he has been through many of these debates now, and the health care argument has been going on for a couple of months now. Obama is more comfortable engaging policy questions now than he was in the fall, and that allowed him to keep pace with the New York Senator.

The second issue on which the discussion got heated was immigration. Barack Obama brought back the charge that Clinton had taken 6 weeks to decide her position on the drivers' license issue, and Clinton hit back that Obama had been unable to offer an answer of his own to the same question (as is confirmed by my wrap-up of that encounter). But Obama effectively appealed to the Latino community by explaining that immigrants were often used as scapegoats for an economic downturn.

But the defining segment of the debate was devoted to the Iraq War, with an unexpectedly long sequence devoted to Hillary Clinton's 2002 votes against the Levin amendment and in favor of the war authorization. It had been quite a while that Clinton had not been made to account for those votes in such detail, as she had been accustomed to do early in 2007. And just as she was done explaining why exactly she thought that she was not giving Bush the authority to go to war, Wolf Blitzer asked her if she was saying she was naive, forcing Clinton to start her explanation one more time. While Clinton did her best to move on to current Iraq policy and embrace Obama as tightly as possible (pointing out that the two vote similarly in the Senate) and while she did not stumble in her justification of her 2002 votes, there is no question that this is the last issue Clinton wants to be discussing in the final 30 minutes of a debate.

The Clinton campaign can hope that not too many voters are left that could be swayed by Clinton's support for the war. The one fact about both candidates most voters probably know is Obama's opposition to Iraq from the start and Clinton's support, which means that the difference has largely been incorporated already. It is therefore unlikely that even an extensive discussion of the topic fundamentally alters anyone's mind at this point. However, such segments are a great boost for Barack Obama, who many voters worry does not have the experience to lead the country. By putting Clinton on the defensive and reminding voters that he had the right judgement, Obama not only scores points on the topic of Iraq but also on the larger issue of experience and readiness. He also helps his effort to portray himself as the most un-Bush: "I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place," Obama said.

Obama came in the debate seeking to capitalize on his upward move. With a sizable number of undecided voters possibly watching the debate -- and many Edwards supporters wondering where to turn -- Obama needed to show that he could match Clinton on policy. Helped by the format and the fact that only the two candidates were left on stage, Obama reassured those voters who might think he is not as ready to lead as Hillary.

On the other hand, Clinton also had a good night. She managed to move past weeks of bickerings that have left her diminished in the eyes of many Democratic voters. She also displayed teh depth of her grasp of issues and her commanding tone suited the image of poised leadership she was out to convey. Clinton is still clinging to a small lead in many of the February 5th states and she desperately needed an performance to neutralize Obama's momentum and stabilize her own decline. This performance will certainly allow her to change the storyline away from Obama's surge, she hopes in a more durable manner than she was able to with her Florida victory. With 5 days to Super Tuesday, she has to run out the clock and she did that successfully tonight.



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