Sen. Barack Obama got some unexpected help during a heated exchange with Sen. Hillary Clinton in tonight's debate, from former Sen. John Edwards, who snatched second place from Clinton in Iowa's caucus.
Comparing her to the "forces for status quo," Edwards said that Obama "believes deeply in change, and I believe deeply in change. Anytime you speak out for change, this is what happens. The forces for status quo are going to attack."
Edwards also defended Obama against Clinton's charge that Obama has switched his positions on health care and the Patriot Act. "To say that Senator Obama is having a debate with himself from some Associated Press story, I think is just not -- that's not the kind of discussion we should be having."
Clinton shot back, emphasizing, "Making change is not about what you believe or about making a speech, it's about working hard." Raising her voice, she said, "I want to make change, but I've already made change. I'm not running on a promise of change. But on 35 years of change … we don't need to raise false hopes of people in our country about what can be delivered."
And she almost shouted: "I think that having a first woman president is a huge change."
The back and forth got so heated that fourth-place candidate Bill Richardson quipped, "I've been in hostile negotiations that are a lot more civil than this."
And the man at the center of the action, Obama, chose to step back, parrying Clinton's attacks. "What is important is that we don't ... try to distort each other's records" and rather work toward "solving problems and bringing people together."
Obama seemed comfortable enough to take a shot at Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, who is torn between endorsing him or Clinton and has contributed to both of their campaigns. Citing his desire to raise the cap on the payroll tax, he used Buffett as an example of those who pay too little payroll tax.
On the issue of likability, the debate verged on melodramatic. When asked how she responded to those who question her likability compared with Obama's, Clinton played the injured damsel: "Well, that hurts my feelings, but I'll try to go on."
And she praised Obama, "He's very likable. I agree on that. I don't think that I'm that bad."
To which Obama quipped: "You're likable enough.'
Clinton also found herself on the defensive about her husband, when Edwards attacked the Clinton administration's lack of success at achieving some of its goals and decried the influence of special interests.
And she went on the attack again against the front-runne, claiming that "Sen. Obama's chairman in New Hampshire is a lobbyist. He lobbies for the drug companies."
Obama gave a diplomatic response, giving Bill Clinton "enormous credit for balancing the budgets during those years." But, he added, "he never built the majority and coalesced the American people to get the other stuff done."
Clinton and Obama jostled to show off who would be tougher at taking on terrorists. Obama said that he still believed in his controversial stance that he would take on al Qaeda forces in Pakistan's western territories: "We will strike anyone who would do America wrong."
Hillary tried to show off her experience — and distancing herself from her husband's administration — by saying that such forceful action needs to be undertaken with care, noting that the Clinton administration made the mistake of attacking a chemical plant in the Sudan and missing al Qaeda.
Yet she flexed some muscle by warning that "every state must know that we will retaliate against those states that are safe havens for stateless terrorists" and predicting "heavy retaliation."
Richardson raised some eyebrows by stating his belief that Pakistan's embattled President Pervez Musharaff should step aside in favor of a caretaker government of technocrats.
This was the first debate to take place since Thursday's stunning results in the Iowa caucus.
The latest WMUR/University of New Hampshire tracking poll has Clinton and Obama locked in a tie at 33 percent of likely voters.
"This is the one opportunity she'll have," a top Clinton aide told the Huffington Post before the debate. "With just three days to go, she can't go negative on TV. The debate is the only mega news event we've got."
Edwards, who snatched second place from Clinton in Iowa, came in third in the poll and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., polled a distant fourth at 4 percent.
All day long, each candidate barnstormed the state, insisting he or she was the only true advocate for change.
Eager to take the mantle back, Clinton focused on being "ready to make the changes that America deserves," and on a "new beginning" at the 100 Club dinner in the Hampshire Dome, in Milford this morning, reported ABC News' Eloise Harper and Sunlen Miller.
Yet, Clinton didn't get the best reception from the crowd and was booed by some in the audience who chanted "O-BAMA."
And Edwards told supporters, "The status quo is yesterday. And change is tomorrow. And tomorrow begins today, right here in New Hampshire."
Missing in action from tonight's debate was Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who didn't make the cut under ABC's rules and has filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against the network.