You might have missed it if you were fixing your hair or cleaning your guns, but mid-way through last night's Democratic debate, the clash we've all been waiting for finally occurred -- sort of. But when Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was done delivering his best jab of the night (his first direct hit of the campaign, and the one he'd been waiting weeks to deliver), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was standing tall as ever.
Obama's line was designed as a gentle yet pointed zinger, a way to draw out the sharpest distinction that exists between the two Democratic front-runners. "The time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in," Obama said, a stone-faced Clinton at his side. That might have been the takeaway line of the night ("Obama Blasts Clinton over War") but then two things happened.
First, the (generally successful) YouTube debate format yanked the forum back to other topics. And then Clinton showed just how dangerous she is on a debate stage. Obama said he'd be willing to meet with the leaders of rogue nations such as Cuba, Iran, and North Korea -- offering his trademark Freshness -- but Clinton shot back with a dose of Experience: "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes," Clinton said. Writes Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post, "she offered a more measured response, one that suggested she believed her rival had been naive in his answer." The Obama camp says Obama meant to say he would have underlings attend the first meetings -- just like Clinton would -- but it's hard to "me-too" this one after the moment has passed.
Obama and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., showed their frustration with Clinton's persistent front-running status; the intent was apparent when Obama said the country needs more than a "change in political parties," and Edwards bemoaned "triangulation." "Sen. Clinton was clearly the target for her closest competitors," ABC's David Chalian writes. "Both Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards attempted to paint themselves as candidates who represent change and the future and Sen. Clinton as the candidate who represents the past."
What else did we learn while Edwards wasn't offering fashion advice to Clinton, and Sen. Joe Biden wasn't hitting on Elizabeth Kucinich? Clinton doesn't want to be called "liberal." Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., can't quite break through with his Iraq plan (and needs to find a better earpiece). Nobody gets indignant quite like Biden, D-Del. (except Mike Gravel, who used most of his time to complain about not getting more time). And the only candidate talking about Edwards' hair was . . . Edwards.
"His submitted video took on the infamous $400 haircut with cutting humor -- but in a fashion that might have been too slick for some," writes Mark Halperin of Time magazine and ABC News. Halperin -- like CNN's focus groups -- scored it a win for Obama, with "his best performance to date, positioning him to return in later forums to the change-change-change contrast he wants (and needs) to define his candidacy."