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« Dems' Purgatory Of Nomentum | Blog Home Page | Morning Thoughts: Obama's Debate Hangover »

Dem Debate Lacks Clear Winner

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania -- For two candidates who profess to be most concerned with bringing their country and their party together, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spent more time at last night's debate raising issues that divide the Democratic electorate than those that unite them. Last night's encounter, which marks nearly two dozen times the two have shared a stage, focused more on political questions than policy discussions, an indication, perhaps, that the intended audience was not Pennsylvania voters but rather the several hundred super delegates who have yet to publicly endorse a candidate.

The political wrangling that has consumed the political press corps in recent weeks found its way on stage for the entire first half of the debate. Obama, who critics charge has been treated with kid gloves by the mainstream media, underwent the harshest questioning he has faced so far during the primaries. Likely to the delight of Hillary Clinton's battered campaign, the New York Senator's rival spent most of that time on the defensive, both from Clinton and from debate moderators. But if Clinton was looking for a game-changing performance, she failed to contribute on her end, leaving both candidates without clear bragging rights.

Buffeted by days of controversy surrounding his suggestion that some in small-town Pennsylvania were bitter at their economic status, Obama brought up the gaffe in his opening statement. Citing Pennsylvanians' "core decency and generosity," Obama said there is nonetheless a sense of frustration, and that his candidacy hopes to "transform that frustration into something more hopeful." "It's not the first time that I've made, you know, a statement that is mangled up," Obama said.

The uproar over "bitter"-gate was far from the only controversy Obama faced all night. More than a month after a major speech in the same Constitution Center in which last night's debate was held, Obama still had to answer questions about his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose controversial comments are still coming up. Later, Obama needed several minutes to answer a question about why he doesn't wear a flag pin. Though he claimed the flap was a "manufactured issue," Obama did not give the short answer he could have.

Clinton too had a rough night, beginning when she answered for her error in judgment over misstatements about her trip to Bosnia as First Lady. What she said on the campaign trail "didn't jive with what I've written about and knew to be the truth," she admitted. "I'm embarrassed about it."

Both candidates, asked whether their opponent could win a general election against John McCain, agreed, though for Clinton, whose assertion to super delegates that she is the most electable is more central to her campaign, the answer seemed almost overeager. "Yes, yes, yes," she said. "I think I can do a better job. Obviously. That's why I'm here," she backpedaled. "I, too, think that I'm the better candidate," Obama said a minute later.

ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson and fellow moderator George Stephanopoulos spent time on pointed questions about previous campaign statements, tactics and strategy, both for the primary and the general election, questions that would seem to concern party insiders, the media and valuable super delegates more than the electorate. Indeed, both candidates said they had fun during the preceding fifteen months of campaigning, but Gibson acknowledged that the race has gone far past the point at which pledged delegates can provide one candidate or the other a clear majority. "This is sort of round fifteen in a scheduled ten-rounder," Gibson joked as he opened the debate.

Not until 8:53 p.m., about 45 minutes after the debate started, did Gibson elicit the first policy-based response from the candidates, on Iraq. Both candidates said they would hold true to their pledges to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq in short order, offering no new policies but reiterating their commitment to ending the war. Asked about defending Israel from a possible nuclear strike from Iran, Obama agreed to do so while Clinton went farther, proposing a "security umbrella" that would protect other Middle East allies from an Iranian strike in exchange for the promise that they not pursue their own nuclear weapons.

It took until after 9:00 p.m. for the first question on domestic policy to arise, though when it did, the candidates engaged in their first real policy back-and-forth in months. Both pledged to cut taxes on middle class families, and generally agreed on capital gains taxes. But the two parted ways on lifting the $97,000 cap on payroll taxes, which Clinton said would hurt the middle class but which Obama said was necessary to fairly taxing much wealthier Americans.

Obama saved his best moment for last, asserting that he made a bet that Americans wanted a change in politics, and that he could be the messenger of that change. "During the course of these last fifteen months, my bet's paid off," Obama said. Clinton's best moment was a long, detailed answer on how to bring gas prices down, which she said she would do partly by investigating the possibility of price gouging and consideration of a possible windfall profit tax on oil companies.

Despite the occasional flare-up, though, both candidates stayed respectful in tone, if not in purpose. That carried some negatives for both candidates. In walking the tightrope designed to avoid losing votes by angering undecided supporters, Obama was forced into a defensive posture, a point from which he struggled to recover all night. Clinton, who was both more humorous and more detailed in her policy discussions, has yet to find the balance between hitting Obama hard on his vulnerabilities and not appearing shrill, could not deliver her own much needed knockout blow.

Trailing by half a dozen points in Pennsylvania, Obama likely did nothing to change his fortunes here. But Clinton, who faces harsh terrain after leaving Pennsylvania, did nothing to seriously blunt Obama's chances among voters in North Carolina, Indiana and following states. Both candidates, it seems, are committed to letting actual voters, be they super delegates or the regular primary electorate, decide the Democratic nomination fight.