CLEVELAND, OHIO -- Sometimes it was difficult to tell if she was squaring off against Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, or the members of the media moderating the debate, but Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, at Tuesday night's debate in Cleveland Ohio, was forceful, determined and, in moments, clearly frustrated with her underdog status and what she seems to see as a deck stacked against her.
The debate, held at Cleveland State University and moderated by NBC's Brian Williams and Tim Russert, started right off with questions about Clinton's flash of anger over the weekend with campaign mailers from Obama's campaign she views as containing misleading information.
Clinton said that "over the last several days, some of those differences in tactics and the choices that Senator Obama's campaign has made regarding flyers and mailers and other information that has been put out about my health care plan and my position on NAFTA have been very disturbing to me." She charged the health care mailer "is almost as though the health insurance companies and the Republicans wrote it."
Obama suggested that insurance companies would like her proposal for a health insurance mandate. "Insurance companies don't mind making sure that everybody has to purchase their product," he said. And he sought to negate her complaints by noting that Clinton has made claims about him that he disputes and thinks are inaccurate, but, "I don't fault Senator Clinton for wanting to point out what she thinks is an advantage to her plan."
Obama painted Clinton as nothing less than a whiner, saying her campaign tactics against him have been consistently negative – with "e-mail, robo-calls, flyers, television ads, radio calls -- and we haven't whined about it because I understand that's the nature of this campaigns."
The second question, about NAFTA, also went to Clinton, which prompted the junior senator from New York to complain about media bias, citing a skit by NBC comedians to combat the questions by the NBC newsmen.
"Could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time?" Clinton asked, saying she didn't mind, though she found it curious. Referring to a comedy sketch mocking media fawning over Obama, Clinton said, "If anybody saw 'Saturday Night Live,' you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow."
However amusing the SNL skit had been, Clinton's gripe that the media coverage has been biased seemed more pointed than good-humored.
Obama for his part remained fairly subdued, abiding by the Hippocratic oath of frontrunners by first doing no harm. He easily forgave Clinton for a controversy he was making great hay over just yesterday – whether the Clinton campaign was circulating a photograph of him in African garb during a 2006 trip abroad so as to feed into pre-existing rumors he's a Muslim. "I take Senator Clinton at her word that she knew nothing about the photo," Obama said, however sincerely. "So I think that's something that we can set aside."