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."
Then after Williams aired the clip of Clinton in Rhode Island Sunday sarcastically mocking Obama's soaring oratory, Obama laughed saying "I thought Senator Clinton showed some good humor there, and I give her points for delivery."
Obama did assail her Iraq war vote, "Once we had driven the bus into the ditch, there were only so many ways we could get out. The question is: Who's making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch?"
Clinton was determined to convey that her combativeness has a higher purpose.
"Fifteen years ago, I tangled with the health insurance industry and the drug companies," she said, "and I know it takes a fighter. It takes somebody who will go toe-to-toe with the special interests."
Obama responded that the manner in which Clinton approached health care after her husband was elected president was needlessly combative. "The way she approached it back in '93, I think, was wrong in part because she had had the view that what's required is simply to fight. And Senator Clinton ended up fighting not just the insurance companies and the drug companies, but also members of her own party."
Clinton's forcefulness pushed an issue that was quite telling about both candidates' political tendencies.
Asked if he rejected the support of the head of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, Obama said he denounced Farrakhan's rhetoric and his anti-Semitic language.
Clinton took issue with Obama denouncing and not rejecting Farrakhan's endorsement – as she had done with the Independence Party in New York during her 2000 Senate run. (Though denouncing a fringe party with links to anti-Semites while running for office in New York is hardly risky.)
"You asked specifically if he would reject it," Clinton said. "And there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting."
She seemed to be getting the better of the exchange, portraying Obama as less the bold, when Obama pivoted, acting as if this was a meaningless scuffle over diction.
"I have to say I don't see a difference between 'denouncing' and 'rejecting,'" he said. "There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word 'reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would 'reject' and 'denounce.'"
Recalling the pop quiz to name four world leaders then-Gov. George W. Bush failed during his presidential run, Russert threw out an open question about the Russian presidential candidate likely to succeed Vladimir Putin. Clinton jumped in and though she was clearly read-in on the situation she seemed unsure of his name -- Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev -- stumbling over it then jokingly saying "whatever." Obama's answer seemed less informed, but Clinton had undercut her own experience argument with her answer.
Both candidates hedged when asked specific questions they've been trying to avoid -- about transparency for Clinton, about breaking a campaign promise for Obama. Essentially, both candidates punted.
Clinton was pressed on the issue of releasing her tax returns and conceded that she might release them earlier than the general election. When asked if she would release them before March 4th, Clinton declined "Well, I can't get it together by then, but I will certainly work to get it together. I'm a little busy right now; I hardly have time to sleep."
Obama was pressed on his change of position on public financing. He would not admit a change of heart, instead said he would "sit down with John McCain and make sure we have a system that works for everyone," if nominated.
Clinton had come into the debate with her advisers saying she would draw strong but polite contrasts with Obama on the important subjects of the economy and national security, ones that would convince late-deciding voters that only she could be commander-in-chief. Though she certainly held her own throughout the night, it was difficult to say that she accomplished her stated goal.