Remember the sunny, positive John Edwards who smiled his way through the 2004 campaign? Neither do we. The former senator, D-N.C., came to last night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire with a new playbook that underscores his campaign's urgency: He needs to tangle with the top two candidates or risks fading into the semi-irrelevancy of the second tier.
And so Edwards unfurled a zinger that navigated around the fact that senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., shared his position by both voting against Iraq war funding 10 days ago: "There is a difference between leadership and legislating."
You've got to love his willingness to go on offense: The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz write that Edwards for the first time "played the role of aggressor" in the faces of his opponents. "He has been doing so from a distance throughout the campaign, but on Sunday night he did not shy from calling out his rivals directly."
But where does Edwards go with this campaign message? On his left stands Obama, who shut down Edwards' attack with an icy response that reminded viewers that both Edwards and Clinton voted for the Iraq war: "You're about 4 1/2 years late on leadership on this issue."
On his right stands Clinton, who played front-runner by refusing to engage the other candidates -- except where, in declaring that Edwards is wrong to reject the term "war on terror," the contrast made her look stronger. "Often, she seemed to be looking beyond the Democratic primary and toward the general election," write Robin Toner and Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times.
Other highlights that occupied the hacks and flacks who shut down the bar of the Manchester Radisson in the wee hours:
The consensus opinion: It was Clinton's night. No candidate looked more presidential -- despite (or because of) Edwards' attacks -- and the stage seemed to tip in her direction when she defended the field against Wolf Blitzer's (enemy of enemies!) toughest queries. But Clinton seemed a tad glib in dismissing the importance of a pre-war intelligence report that she never read. And did she open herself up to a new line of attack by saying "we are safer than we were" under President Bush's leadership?
Peter Canellos of The Boston Globe writes that Bill Clinton's "favorite tactic" -- glossing over Democrats' differences to unite against common enemies -- "didn't work for Hillary. The Iraq war is simply too pressing a concern for most Democrats."
Obama was much improved from his first debate performance -- and won the battle for the most airtime -- but such formats may never play to his rhetorical strengths. "For a candidate who has made a name for himself as a stirring orator, Mr. Obama is coming up flat when forced to engage his electoral opponents," writes Seth Gitell of the New York Sun.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., did the most to distinguish himself among the rest of the field, and he's calculating that he'll get credit for intellectual consistency by supporting funding for the troops. But the second tier mostly spent last night clamoring for more chances to be heard -- and none of them rocked the stage enough to shake up the race.
Meanwhile, with the Republicans set to shuffle into the same hockey rink on the outskirts of Manchester tomorrow night, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is getting a jump on the field with an immigration speech in Coral Gables, Fla., at 10 am ET today.