It comes down to this for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: What can a 20th debate bring that the previous 19 haven't?
By now, we get it -- there's the 35 years of experience, the battle scars, the 10-point plans, Day One. But one more time (with feeling now) -- in a "change" election, where Democratic voters have shown no inclination to look backward, how exactly is it that Clinton, D-N.Y., will help them look forward?
As one debate veteran joins Sen. Barack Obama's bandwagon, it's Clinton's last chance to hit reset before the voters of Ohio and Texas determine her fate -- and her challenge is to bring Obama down a bit while building herself up. If Monday's terrain-shifting speech is preview, the arrows will obscure the olive branches at Cleveland State -- and it won't matter what outfits the candidates wear.
Barring a major misstep (and practice makes perfect), not even a last debate is going to change everything, or even reverse a months-long trend line. But at least, this time, (we think) we know which Clinton we're going to get: Expect sharp contrasts (and sharp language) in snowy Cleveland Tuesday at 9 pm ET, in what could be the last Democratic debate of the cycle.
Ladies and gentlemen, your closing argument: Clinton "assailed rival Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., as unwise, inexperienced, impulsive and indecisive -- in short, a risk to the nation," per ABC's Jake Tapper and Eloise Harper.
If you want to get Democrats' attention, compare a rival to George W. Bush: "We've seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security," Clinton said Monday.
The speech "was part of an effort that the former first lady's advisers say is aimed at 'raising the stakes' in the contest," Perry Bacon Jr. writes in The Washington Post (though as omens go, the fact that she lost her voice mid-way through wasn't forgotten).
"Over the next week, Clinton will seek, in sometimes dark terms, to frame the challenges facing the next president in the hopes that it will reinforce the experience argument that failed to stop Obama from winning 11 straight contests so far."
It's "kitchen sink" time, Patrick Healy and Julie Bosman write in The New York Times.
It "reflects her advisers' belief that they can persuade many undecided voters to embrace her at the last minute by finally drawing sharply worded, attention-grabbing contrasts with Mr. Obama," they write.
But "they said she would try to avoid making harsh personal attacks on Mr. Obama, particularly since Mrs. Clinton drew widespread attention and praise at the debate last week for saying she was 'honored' to be on the same stage with him."
Clinton needs to make this a choice, not a referendum. As targets go, there's NAFTA, 527s, pilfered words, the experience gap, the untested-media-darling thing, and (big maybe here) nefarious insinuations, as epitomized by what was either a clumsy attempt to get a photo of Obama in African garb into circulation or a clever attempt to make Clinton look desperate.
(That last dust-up -- we trust -- settles on the second day, its motives and message shrouded to all but Mr. Drudge.)
But darkness is beginning to settle on the campaign -- and not in the way Clinton wants. This remains a "change" election where she is the status quo. What if Obama has grown in stature because of his relative lack of experience -- his freshness -- not in spite of it?