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Clinton Makes Her Pivots

By Tom Bevan

There were two interesting pivots made by Hillary Clinton in last night's debate, one seen and one unseen. While most people are focusing on her angry exchange with John Edwards at the beginning of the debate, it was a single line near the end that represents Clinton's new angle of attack against Obama: "Words are not actions," Clinton said, adding, " And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action."

For months, Hillary Clinton has tried to play the experience card against Barack Obama - to very little effect. But simmering just under the surface throughout the campaign is the feeling among the Clintonistas that the freshman Senator from Illinois is a poser: a man who knows how to talk the talk but does not walk the walk. Clinton's new angle - "words are not actions" - taps into that sentiment in a way the experience argument did not, and it pushes back against Obama's core strength of being seen as an effective agent of change.

Much to Clinton's surprise, Obama played directly into this new angle last night by circling back to defend the power of words. "The truth is, actually, words do inspire," Obama said, "words do help people get involved, words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health-care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy." It's an eloquent response, to be sure, but something Clinton can use to flesh out the new contrast: it's not experience vs. inexperience, it is action versus words and achievement versus rhetoric.

Clinton's second pivot took place in the spin room after the debate, where Clinton spokesperson Jay Carson deftly took John Edwards' attack on Hillary and turned it into an indictment against Obama.

"When presented with a direct challenge from a competitor in a general election debate, you can't count on one of your primary opponents to jump in and defend you," Carson said. "And Senator Obama had an opportunity there to stick up for himself. He didn't."

With his slashing attack against Clinton in the debate, Edwards sought to align himself with Obama as the two agents of change in the race squaring off against the status quo. Two hours later, however, the Clinton campaign had spun that attack around, aligning Hillary with John Edwards as one of the two "fighters" in the race versus the pushover, Obambi.

Action versus words, tough versus weak. Whether this angle of attack will halt Obama's ascent is an open question. But the pivots executed by the Clinton campaign last night play much more to her strengths - and to Obama's potential weaknesses - than anything she's tried thus far.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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