LOS ANGELES, Feb. 1, 2008 -- The final Democratic debate of primary season was civil and substantive right from the start.
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.
Barack Obama opened by noting, "I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign; I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over."
Clinton answered with equal grace, remarking on the historic significance that the Democratic nominee will be either a Black man or a woman. "Look at us," she said. "We are not more of the same. We will change this country."
It was the first time Clinton and Obama were alone on the stage, but at least one of the Democratic candidates who have dropped out loomed large.
Several times, Clinton dropped John Edwards name admiringly -- beginning with her opening remarks.
"I'm very grateful for the extraordinary service of John and Elizabeth Edwards," she said. Both she and Obama are hoping Edwards' supporters will come over to them.
Obama, meanwhile, invoked John McCain's name half a dozen times, as though he were already looking forward to the general election.
The debate was held at the Kodak Theater, home of the Oscars. But instead of paparazzi on the red carpet, Hollywood Boulevard was thronged with supporters of both candidates.
Among the celebrities in the audience: ex-007 Pierce Brosnan and former West Wing star Bradley Whitford. Directors Rob Reiner and Steven Spielberg were there, as well as music legend Stevie Wonder, and actors Michael Keaton and Jason Alexander.
Politics and pop culture also clashed along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as street performers dressed like Johnny Depp in his role from "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the serial killer Jason from "Halloween" bobbed and weaved among the Clinton and Obama signs.
Inside the theater, the topics of discussion included health care, immigration, tax cuts and Iraq. There were a few sharp exchanges.
On Iraq, Obama argued he's best equipped to take on the Republicans because he opposed the war from the start.
"Sen. Clinton, that's a clear swipe at you," moderator Wolf Blitzer said.
"Really?" Clinton answered, with mock surprise.
Obama also said Clinton waffled on the issue of whether illegal immigrants should be able to receive driver's licenses.
"Sen. Clinton gave a number of different answers over the course of a few weeks on this issue and now she has a clear position," Obama said.
"Well, I just have to correct the record," Clinton shot back. "A week later you were asked the same question and you didn't have an answer."
The candidates smiled awkwardly as the moderator observed that the two of them would be a "dream ticket."
"Either Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama," Blitzer imagined aloud.
"Well, there's a big difference between the two," Obama said, smiling. But he conceded "Hillary would be on anyone's shortlist."
Clinton chimed in, "Well, I have to agree with everything Barack just said."
But at times the civility was sharp-edged. At the end of the debate, Obama made a point of going over and helping Clinton out of her chair -- a gentlemanly gesture that may have had a larger point.
After Obama seemed to snub Clinton at the State of the Union address Tuesday night, Clinton milked it, observing that she had "extended her hand in friendship" but was rebuffed.
Obama appeared to be at pains to leave her no such opening at this encounter.