THE NOTE: Obama Pulls Punches in Feisty Debate


Some lessons from last night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire (keeping in mind that "childrens do learn":

- John Edwards is taller than Dennis Kucinich (and better than most at finding his debate moments).

- Cold or no cold, the new, more aggressive Barack Obama is still on the shelf (and could stay there a while).

- Bill Richardson must hate Tim Russert (but Dartmouth undergrads probably love him).

- Chris Dodd is too . . . senatorial to say out loud the words he's put to paper (and Hillary Clinton says thanks).

- The "old stuff" Joe Biden referenced from the Clinton years was about more than "policy -- policy!" (or should have been).

- Mike Gravel officially resides in Fantasy Land (when he's not tilting at windmills).

- Clinton doesn't even have to answer questions at debates anymore to "win" (but she gave her rivals a choice sound bite when she said she's "probably have to alternate sides" between supporting the Yankees and the Cubs).

It was another solid night for the Democratic frontrunner, who came to Dartmouth College with a target on her back but left with at least shared custody of another trophy. She ducked, dodged, charmed, and -- yes -- laughed her way through the verbal darts. Then she capped her performance with one of those lines that's likely to survive for a while, laying out a disagreement with her husband about whether there's ever room for torture.

"He's not standing here right now," she said to applause. Pressed about whether this signals a disagreement between husband and wife, she broke a tense moment: "Well, I'll talk to him later." In 12 words, she took the best Bill has to offer yet affirmed that she's in charge.

All of the Big Three left room for the possibility that they'd keep troops in Iraq into 2013 -- a startling admission that gives Clinton protection on her left flank. But it was a rougher night than Clinton, D-N.Y., is used to, and it suggests that more direct engagement is coming. The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut judge her to have been "less dominant" than in previous debates, "her potential liabilities . . . highlighted."

This from Edwards, D-N.C., who may have gained himself the most ground last night (though another Fortress story today detracts from his performance): "Senator Clinton also voted for this war. We learned a very different lesson from that. I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran."

This from Obama, D-Ill., who clearly came with this zinger (and this one alone) ready for delivery with regard to Clinton's failed healthcare effort: "Part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process."

"Perhaps the fireworks were not quite as bright as the pundits had predicted, but there was no doubt that Sen. Hillary Clinton was taking some heat from her opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination," ABC's David Chalian writes. "The rest of the field (and the moderator) kept Clinton on defense for most of the evening, though nobody seemed to be able to land a clean punch that posed any serious harm to Clinton."

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