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Edwards Shines, But Clinton Still Leads

By Reid Wilson

PHILADELPHIA - In a debate long hyped as the battle many have waited for, when Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would finally engage in hand to hand combat, it was a third candidate, former Senator John Edwards, who stole much of the show. Edwards, who has of late seen his poll numbers decline in Iowa, the state seen as crucial to his presidential bid, turned in a strong performance that his campaign hopes will set him up as the leader in the Anybody-But-Clinton primary.

Obama, who in a weekend New York Times interview suggested his campaign would take after Clinton in a new bid to cut into the front-runner's support, began the debate by backing off his statements. "I think some of this stuff gets overhyped," he said, in his first answer. "In fact, I think this has been the most hyped fight since Rocky fought Apollo Creed."

Later in the debate, Obama seemed to find his stride and recognize some of the urgency many of his supporters feel. He criticized some of Clinton's previous positions on Iraq, NAFTA and others, but he didn't rise to the bait offered by moderator Brian Williams until the middle half of the debate. Obama suggested that Clinton's leadership is neither consistent nor principled, though he did not name his opponent.

Obama, standing to Clinton's left, spent much of the early parts of the debate addressing moderators Williams and Russert, a pose that forced him to look away from his chief adversary. The visual, coupled with a reticence to strike rhetorically, gave an early impression of a candidate once again unwilling to go negative, even as it increasingly appears his only option.

On Clinton's right side stood John Edwards, who began the debate, unlike Obama, backing his campaign's assertion that the New York Senator engaged in "double talk." Accusing Clinton of changing positions on social security and other issues, Edwards reserved his most biting criticism for a recent vote designating an elite Iranian military unit as a terrorist organization. "A lot of us on this stage have learned our lessons the hard way: That you give this president an inch, and he'll take a mile," Edwards said.

Rattling off the similarities between the Kyl-Lieberman resolution, of which Clinton alone among Democratic candidates voted in favor, Edwards sounded exasperated. "Has anyone read this thing? I mean, it literally gave Bush and Cheney exactly what they wanted," he proclaimed. "How in the world is that ... Democrats standing up to this president and saying, 'No, we are not going to allow this, we are not going to allow this march to war in Iran'?"

As Edwards seeks to distinguish himself as the electable alternative to Clinton, he repeatedly bettered Obama's attack lines. After Obama suggested Clinton was a popular target of Republicans because the GOP relishes the ability to run against her, Edwards' hand shot up. The former senator sharpened the line, using it to suggest that Clinton should be unacceptable to the Democratic primary electorate as well. "If people want the status quo, then Senator Clinton is your candidate," Edwards said.

"The alternative to Senator Clinton is John Edwards," campaign manager David Bonior said after the debate. Bonior said his candidate succeeded in making the leap over Obama. "The distinction is very important, and Senator Edwards is the one who made it, not Senator Obama."

Clinton, for the first time, was forced to play defense virtually the entire night. She handled the broadsides from other candidates, hoping to prove to primary voters that she can weather the coming Republican storm. But her opponents' focus on the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, Clinton backers suggested, were based on false premises. "They've drawn a false alternative," said retired General Wesley Clark, who is backing Clinton. "And that shows their inexperience in foreign policy." Clark compared other candidates' answers to "Little League baseball," while Clinton, he said, was in the Major Leagues.

The attacks were something her campaign clearly saw coming: Instead of holding public events, Clinton's campaign kept her out of the public eye, hunkering down in debate preparation. That preparation, it seems, paid off.

The focus on front-runners was interrupted only briefly by good moments for some second-tier candidates. While Republican debates have been marked by frequent Clinton mentions, it was left to Joe Biden to take on GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani. "There's only three things [Giuliani] mentions in a sentence: A noun, a verb and 9/11," he said, to laughter.

Bill Richardson stood up for Clinton at one point, calling attacks from Edwards and Obama a "holier than thou attitude." "It is pretty close to personal attacks we don't need," he said.

Even Dennis Kucinich, who longtime friend Shirley MacLaine recently suggested had seen an unidentified flying object, finished the debate on a high note, forcing moderator Tim Russert to admit that 14% of Americans claim to have seen a UFO. Kucinich, who had fun with the answer, made Russert repeat the figure twice.

The debate, though, focused primarily on the scuffle between front-runners Clinton, Obama and Edwards. And while Obama seemed to find his voice against Clinton late in the evening, it was Edwards who stood out, offering the clearest distinctions and the sharpest rhetoric in order to distinguish himself.

In the end, that outcome could benefit Clinton. With Obama in solid second place in most of the polls and suffused with enough cash to outlast at least a month of early contests, Edwards still will help himself to a sizable chunk of the Anybody-But-Clinton crowd. That constituency remains fractured, and by the end of the day, that's good news for Hillary Clinton.

Philadelphia, home more than 200 years ago to America's first angry political debates when framers of the Constitution haggled over the founding language, saw another contentious brawl this evening, the hottest of the 2008 Democratic campaign. But the scrum did little to shake up the race, and Clinton's rivals will now have to wait to find the next opportunity to make their case to the electorate.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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