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."
Politico's Roger Simon called it a victory for Edwards: "John Edwards has found a theme: He is angry and he is on your side. He is bold and he will use his boldness for you." Lynn Sweet of The Chicago Sun-Times saw Clinton display "calm confidence" -- and luck out in that "the gang never ganged up on her." Obama succeeded in showing what makes him different, Sweet writes: "A core underpinning of Obama's presidential bid is the belief that solutions to problems -- domestic and international -- can be found through a search for common ground and consensus."
Leave it to Clinton to sum up the night -- albeit unintentionally. "I believe that there isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously," she said. As ABC's Jake Tapper put it on "Good Morning America": "Indeed, Clinton is taken so seriously, the other Democrats went after her."
The biggest winner? The format -- and here's guessing that presidential debates will never be quite the same, even if last night marks the first and last appearance of the talking snowman and the scary guy who calls his assault rifle his "baby." "It was a bad night for news anchors and Washington bureau chiefs, the traditional interrogators of would-be holders of American high office," writes Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
"Most of the video questions posed in last night's Democratic debate were more memorable than the answers, proving that novices can ask good questions, but not necessarily elicit better answers than professional journalists," Alessandra Stanley writes in The New York Times.
Also in the news:
The story most likely to dominate the next series of debates: American military commanders in Iraq have "prepared a detailed plan that foresees a significant American role for the next two years," The New York Times' Michael R. Gordon reports. "The classified plan, which represents the coordinated strategy of the top American commander and the American ambassador, calls for restoring security in local areas, including Baghdad, by the summer of 2008."
Forget hunting down insurgents: Where will President Bush find the political support to make a maintain a major troop presence in Iraq into 2009? "An overwhelming 78 percent of Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say Bush is not willing enough to change his stance on the war, up from 66 percent last December," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes. "The biggest movement is among Republicans; 55 percent say the president is not willing enough to alter his Iraq polices, up 16 points." The public wants Congress to take over the war, and Bush's disapproval rating is now 65 percent -- second only to Richard Nixon in the summer in 1974.
The day's biggest Republican political development came courtesy of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., who has new radio ads running in Iowa and New Hampshire that are interesting for two reasons: They're running in Iowa and New Hampshire, and they don't mention 9/11. "The trio of ads are the first by the presidential hopeful aimed directly at those early voting battlegrounds, where Giuliani is consistently running second or third within the GOP, even as he tops most national polls," writes David Saltonstall of the New York Daily News.
Radio ads are inexpensive (no TV yet for Rudy), but this could indicate a change in strategy for Giuliani, who has hinted strongly that he would focus on the larger states that vote after the first batch. (Maybe somebody's noticing that the field looks mighty different with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., down if not quite out.) And not mentioning 9/11? Will his candidacy be larger than that of Action Hero Rudy? The ads "play up Giuliani's cuts in crime, welfare rolls, taxes and government spending in New York City when he was its mayor from 1994 to 2001," Newsday's Tom Brune writes.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is such a nice guy to be running such a rough campaign. He's got two rival candidates -- former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., and Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., simultaneously calling on him to pull automated phone calls from circulation. Brownback is attacking both for past financial ties to Planned Parenthood, and is standing by the ads, even though neither is still on the air, ABC's Julia Bain reports.
With the federal minimum wage increasing today, ABC's Teddy Davis identifies another possible Romney flip-flop. He was in favor of automatically adjusting the state minimum wage to account for inflation when he ran for governor in 2002, but isn't stating a position now. "You know, I haven't looked at the federal minimum-wage process," Romney said. It's an easy enough question for a Harvard MBA to understand, governor: The minimum wage doesn't adjust for inflation now -- do you want it to in the future?
Another Romney staffer is in the news -- and not in a good way. Now one is boasting in his MySpace profile that "he's a top secret 'special ops' employee who toils in the 'underbelly of politics,' " per the Boston Herald's Casey Ross.
Paul Kane of The Washington Post has details of "political briefings for the Bush administration's top diplomats," including Karl Rove-run PowerPoint presentations for ambassadors. "The briefings, mostly run by Rove's deputies at the White House political affairs office, began in early 2001 and included detailed analyses for senior officials of the political landscape surrounding critical congressional and gubernatorial races, according to documents obtained by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee," Kane writes. We are shocked.
"I am going to take whatever I have left and go home. . . . Good-bye America." -- Cindy Sheehan, May 29.
"I had to get back into it." -- Sheehan, yesterday, as she prepares to announce her candidacy against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. This makes her "the Michael Jordan of the peace movement," per The Washington Post's Dana Milbank.
Next up: The Republican presidential debate August 5 in Des Moines, to be broadcast as a special edition of ABC's "This Week." Submit your questions for the candidates here.