PHILADELPHIA -- Hope may float, but it doesn't always soar.
Probed, prodded, pressed, and punched, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., enters the final stretch in Pennsylvania coming off a debate that was probably his roughest -- a full-on, mostly grim, moderately ugly outing of the questions that swirl around his candidacy.
The debate at the National Constitution Center may not change a thing about a nomination fight that could already be settled. But it wrapped up in an unwieldy package the case against the Democratic frontrunner -- and tossed both candidates' dirty laundry into the Philadelphia air.
It laid bare the stark choice for Democratic voters -- and, of course, for the superdelegates whose lap the race could fall into -- while offering a contrast where style is the substance.
"Barack Obama last night staked his presidential campaign on the idea that the American people will look beyond the inevitable gaffes and errors and character attacks of a 24-hour campaign cycle to meet the challenges of a 'defining moment' in American history," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe.
"Hillary Clinton staked her campaign on the idea that Americans won't -- and that her tougher, more strategic approach to countering Republican attacks is a better way for Democrats to reclaim the White House."
"The choice between the candidates crystallized tonight," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes. "It is not, fundamentally, a choice about issues or even ideology -- it is a choice about approach."
Obama (tired?) has had few campaign evenings as trying as Wednesday. "It could not have been the performance Obama wanted to have six days before the state's primary, at a time when he needed to reassure voters," Thomas Fitzgerald writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"At its core the debate boiled down to this familiar argument: Obama saying that politics itself was broken, its games not worth playing, and Clinton saying that skill at the game was crucial."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., relished the chances presented to her -- cognizant of the fact that this might have been the final time she and Obama met in a debate. And both candidates have rather clearly memorized the briefing books by this point.
"Mrs. Clinton did not let an opportunity pass as she repeatedly challenged Mr. Obama on his record and views -- assisted, as it turned out, by vigorous questioning by the two moderators from ABC News, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos," Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.
"The result was arguably one of Mr. Obama's weakest debate performances," they write.
"He at times appeared annoyed as he sought to answer questions about his former pastor, his reluctance to wear an American flag pin on his lapel and his association in Chicago with former members of the Weather Underground, a radical group that carried out bombings in the 1960s that were intended to incite the overthrow of the government."
"This was a tough debate, especially for Barack Obama," ABC's David Wright reported on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "Hillary Clinton almost seemed to look past the Pennsylvania voters and address the superdelegates, raising questions about Obama's electability."
Clinton seemed to come to the night aware of her rising negative numbers -- her jabs were sharp, but she repeatedly returned to the need for a Democrat (any Democrat) to win.