Sen. Barack Obama was only facing one Clinton on stage Monday night in Myrtle Beach. But by the time the first exchange of the evening was over, Obama realized he was confronting the accumulated firepower of the most formidable Democratic political machine assembled in modern history -- and there's no more pretending that the Democratic primary is a friendly little exchange of ideas and ideals.
Now that it's all in the open -- now that South Carolina brought out vitriol that Vegas (!) didn't, and now that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has an ally, not an enemy, in former senator John Edwards -- who's happy with the turn to the personal?
The candidate who's mastered old-style, rough-and tumble politics (and who had that "slum landlord" Tony Rezko ready to go to meet a remark about Wal-Mart)? Or the candidate whose broad appeal is based on remaking the nation's politics (and who's being outmaneuvered on tactical grounds just about every day)?
(And the daily wild card: If the stock market plummets on Tuesday, whose political capital rises?)
Obama pushed back at both Clintons -- something he wanted and needed to do, and something that appears likely to help him in critical South Carolina. (As we wait for Bill Clinton's dance audition, the fact that Obama could ask "whether in fact he was a brother" may have represented the most memorable remark of the night in a state where more than half of Democratic primary voters are expected to be African-American.)
Perhaps Obama fought with just as much skill as Clinton Monday evening; there's no more questioning whether he can get tough on stage. Yet the Clinton campaign has (finally) succeeded in taking Obama to a playing field that the Clintons are more than comfortable with.
"If the debate was full of memorable moments -- Mrs. Clinton accusing Mr. Obama of associating with a 'slum landlord,' Mr. Obama saying he felt as if he were running against both Hillary and Bill Clinton, the two candidates talking over each other -- the totality of the attacks also laid bare the ill will and competitive ferocity that has been simmering between them for weeks," Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.
Obama was ready to confront Clinton, but his is a "campaign now on the defensive," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "Obama has learned how formidable the Clintons' political machine can be, particularly when its future is on the line. . . . This is a fight the Clinton campaign welcomes. But it is one that threatens to have long-term consequences if both sides cannot find a way to pull back."
It's a good thing there's only one debate left before Feb. 5, since the candidates left precisely nothing out. "The smoldering acrimony between the Democratic presidential front-runners flared openly as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traded charges in a debate Monday about who is dishonest, who is cowardly and who is doing the bidding of reviled special interests," Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write in the Chicago Tribune.