The Note: Friendly Fire

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Those not-so-nice things Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have been saying about each other? The snits and the snubs?

Well -- they did elbow each other out of the way in their efforts to praise John Edwards. And then they ended the evening with a hug (almost) -- and placed each other on their vice-presidential shortlists.

So we showed up for a fight, and a debate broke out. It says that both Clinton, D-N.Y., and Obama, D-Ill., are fairly pleased with where things stand -- if by "pleased" you mean dreadfully nervous about where things may turn before Tuesday.

Clinton has an on-the-ground edge in the big states that vote next. Obama has a clear advantage in enthusiasm and excitement. They both have plenty of money (we know that's not a problem for Obama, at least) to fight it out well beyond Feb. 5.

That's where the battle will be joined -- not on a debate stage, and certainly not on the debate stage Thursday night in Hollywood, in front of all those famous people. "Thursday's debate played out as if they were two talk show guests trading jokes as they worked around the edges of a number of domestic policies," Cathleen Decker and Maria L. La Ganga write in the Los Angeles Times.

"The gravest distinction came on the war, which loomed large as an issue as the presidential race began but has gradually diminished in the Democratic contests," they write. "With the war again the focus, the race reverted to the campaign's purest distillation: Clinton's experience against Obama's judgment."

Like one of those pay-per-view boxing matches that leaves viewers demanding refunds, Thursday night's one-on-one debate in Hollywood was a tactical dance that left both combatants standing. South Carolina was a distant memory.

ABC's David Wright: "Anyone who was expecting fireworks last night might well have been disappointed, but the two candidates both sought to rise above the bickering that marked their last encounter in Myrtle Beach, S.C."

"Gone were the sharp and sometimes personal attacks that have characterized a year's worth of debates, particularly a combative session last week in South Carolina, which both sides conceded had tarnished their images," Jeff Zeleny and Patrick Healy write in The New York Times. "Cordial as the encounter was, the candidates did not mask their own divisions, even as they previewed the attacks one of them will ultimately make against a Republican rival."

We're back where we started, pitting change against experience, or, at least, two different kinds of experience against each other. And Clinton got the deep breath she's been asking everyone to take, as she conveyed measured confidence and competence.

Beyond mild differences on Iraq, healthcare, and immigration, the candidates "sharply disagreed on who has the better combination of leadership and experience to defeat Republicans in November and lead the country as president," Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut write in The Washington Post. "They hewed to strategies designed to give them the upper hand after this Tuesday's 22 Democratic primaries and caucuses in what remains a fierce and extremely competitive nomination battle."

If Clinton and Obama were acting (auditioning for Spielberg and Reiner and Leo) then ABC's George Stephanopoulos was among those who bought their bits. "What I'll bet is, if she gets the nomination, she picks him" as a running mate, he said Friday on "Good Morning America."

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