In Texas debate, candidates remain civil, sometimes even dispirited

Tonight's debate might have been the first in the entire month of February. But it was far more obvious while watching the debate that this was the 19th confrontation between the Democratic candidates. The discussion seemed often dispirited and many of the arguments have been aired many times before. Hillary Clinton needed a knockout performance tonight to recapture momentum and, while both had some strong moments, neither candidate scored a major point. And that alone gives the win to Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton's moving last answer was as powerful a moment as she has gotten in these debates -- and it perfectly summarized tonight's dynamics. Asked what her most defining crisis has been, Clinton explained that she had long realize she was blessed and cited people she had met on the trail that were facing true crisis. "No matter what happens in this contest, and I am honored to be here with Barack Obama..." she said, at which point the two candidates shook hands in what seemed to be a very genuine moment, "I am absolutely honored. Whatever happens, we're going to be fine. We have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people. And that's what this election should be about."

This answer drew a standing ovation, and it was indeed delivered very powerfully and could very well help her win votes. But it seemed to have been delivered as a farewell, an attempt to exit the campaign on an emotional high and stay in the hearts of Democratic voters. And she seemed to be driven by this very motivation throughout the debate, to demonstrate that she cared about the problems of the American people beyond this presidential race.

In response to the previous question -- whether she thought superdelegates should intervene -- Clinton had answered that she believed it would just sort itself out and that the entire party would unify behind its nominee. Clinton must realize that for her to win the nomination would take more than "sorting itself out," and her vague talk of "the nominee" also sounded like a defeatist approach. Or, at least, that was Clinton's statement that she will not try to win this with superdelegates, and that she will not press her case if she is clearly behind in pledged delegates. What weeks of contests did not get us (the assurance that this thing will be decided before the convention), Clinton's responses might have provided.

Taken together, those two responses and calls for unity made for a powerful finale for Clinton, but they were not necessarily what she needed to reverse her declining fortunes. And they apparently represent a defeat for those in Clinton's campaign (like Penn) who were pressing for a much more brutal confrontation.

Earlier in the debate, Clinton was directly asked to address her criticism of Obama's campaign that he had plagiarized speeches given by MA's Governor Patrick. Clinton did go through the motions of a response, attacking Obama again with one of tonight's lines that will find itself the most quoted -- "it's not change you can believe in its change you can Xerox" -- but it simply did not look to me that she was into her own response, nor that she was comfortable continuing to attack Obama long those lines, putting together a series of sentences rather than a coherent stream.

She did venture a "I have to admit I was somewhat amused the other night when one of Senator Obama's supporters was asked to name an accomplishment, and he couldn't," but barely tried to put that moment or the Patrick controversy in a broader perspective, nor she did not take the moderators' cue to argue why Obama lacked the experience to be commander-in-chief. This was the debate where Clinton needed to go strongly after Obama and tried to get him to trip up, either finally making a successful case for why she is more of a fighter than he is or by showing some sort of inconsistency in one of his positions.

The debate did get heat up when the discussion went to health care. The moderators unexplicably tried to move on repeatedly (even putting in a commercial break) but Hillary Clinton kept insisting that this be talked about. "This is personal to me," she exclaimed pleading with Campbell Brown to let them continue talking about health care. Quoting John Edwards to which she referred twice in this segment (realizing that health care is probably the main reason he has not endorsed Obama as of now), she defended the idea of a mandate and blamed Obama for not insuring anyone.

In response, Obama used his usual arguments that people who don't have health care cannot afford it and fining them won't help, missing the basic point that the criticism of his plan is not just that not everyone will be insured but that many people who can afford it will choose to free ride. But this entire health care discussion has been aired before, including in previous debates, and the two candidates used the same arguments -- and often the same lines. It might have been personal for Clinton, but none of this was new, testifying to why it is so difficult for her now to change the fundamental dynamics of the race.

In fact -- and as is often the case -- Clinton had some of her best lines and strongest attacks against President Bush and the Republican Party, making the audience cheer over and over again as she attacked them for overspending or for mismanaging the economy. And Obama followed suit more than he usually does, but he had John McCain in mind more than Bush, as he referenced McCain's call to stay in Iraq for a 100 years, in a preview of the general election.

Throughout the debate, Barack Obama stayed very strong. He has grown much better in this exercise in the past year and that improvement was obvious in how much better he is now in giving nuanced answers -- even some that go back on past statements -- and doing so very smoothly. That was obvious in the discussion the candidates had over whether they would meet with Raul Castro when they take office. The discussion over health care also showed off Obama's increased strength, as the difference in mastery of policy was less obvious this time than in previous debates (largely due to how many times this same discussion has taken place now, in almost identical words).

Another very strong answer on Obama's part came when pressed to defend himself against criticism that he was all talk and had little substance to back it up, as he derided the suggestion: "The implication has been that the people who have been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional... The thinking is that somehow they're being duped...and that eventually they're going to see the reality of things." This is also an answer he has had time to prepare, as this issue has been on the table for a long time now, but his answer was particularly well crafted and seemed to take some of the urge to press on that Clinton had left out of her. And keep in mind that Obama did not even need to be strong tonight, he just needed to not stumble to preserve his delegate lead.

The edge in the debate has to be given to Obama. But the story tonight was Hillary Clinton, and her quasi-acknowledgment of the high odds she faces.



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