The Note: Still Standing

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Maybe it was the early hour, or the Iowa setting, or maybe all the practice has paid off. Whatever it was, Sen. Barack Obama may want to reconsider his decision to avoid as many presidential forums as he can (though it will give him more time for bumper cars).

Finally, after four months, a Democratic debate took place that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't "win."

She didn't "lose" either, and that's a not-insignificant achievement given the political target that's grown on her back.

The other candidates mostly took passes when asked to strike directly on the electability question -- too potent still, apparently, for broadcast television. But yesterday's forum on ABC's "This Week" was the debate that three candidates not named Clinton -- Obama, Gov. Bill Richardson, and former senator John Edwards -- can credibly call their strongest.

Plenty of material to mull over while we finish digesting state fair fare (and lots of time to chat about it if you joined much of the political world stranded at O'Hare International Airport last night).

Why did Edwards, D-N.C., (and most of the rest of the field) pull punches (and is the candidate of "hope of optimism" back now)?

Will Richardson's, D-N.M., strong performance matter (and will anyone notice that Sen. Joe Biden's, D-Del., Iraq plan is now the consensus choice as a basis for discussion)?

Will Obama, D-Ill., find a second act on Iraq (not that his first act -- as the only major candidate against the war since before it started -- has grown tired -- yet)?

Is Clinton, D-N.Y., just not a morning person?

Obama largely avoided the blow-up fight he was preparing for when he readied his "bumper cars" line -- and emerged as the debate's "biggest winner," per Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen.

"He was in the cross hairs for much of the early part of the session and he stood up well to the scrutiny over his foreign policy positions and questions of whether he's qualified to be president," writes Yepsen, who questioned the candidates on stage alongside ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "He looked presidential and unlike some of his earlier, halting debate performances, was much more polished and laid back in this one."

"Obama was clearly prepared for the onslaught," ABC's David Wright reports. "Obama deftly turned the experience question against Clinton as he argued for change from what he calls the 'failed politics of Washington.'"

Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News gave Obama an A: "His best debate performance so far." On Clinton (A-): "Polished, if not perfect." And Edwards (also A-): "Tried repeatedly to place himself between and above Clinton and Obama."

The Democratic campaign has centered on questions about Clinton's divisiveness and Obama's experience, and both candidates "held their own" when directly confronted with the questions, The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes writes.

Clinton parried Karl Rove's recent description of her as "fatally flawed" as a candidate: "I find it interesting he's so obsessed with me. And I think the reason is because we know how to win."

Obama wedged in some indirect hits -- "I'm your guy," the Rumsfeld-Cheney line, and "we're going to need somebody who can break out of the political patterns that we've been in over the last 20 years."

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