About midway through last night's 20th Democratic presidential debate, the folks at MSNBC played a clip of Sen. Hillary Clinton mocking her rival's speeches as empty sermonlike experiences, replete with light from on high and celestial choirs singing.
But if the sarcasm aimed at Barack Obama was meant to diminish, it had the opposite effect on the debate stage. "Sounds good," Obama said with a wide smile as the clip ended. "I thought Senator Clinton showed some good humor there. I would give her points for delivery."
And with the confidence of a front-runner, Obama did the politically unusual: He summarized Clinton's beef with him—her argument, he said, is that speeches are not solutions. But then he deftly pivoted into his Senate work on ethics and on behalf of returning war veterans.
It was that kind of a night for Clinton, who came out aggressively, needing to somehow change the narrative of a once high-flying campaign seemingly in its last days. She complained about a negative mailer from Obama's campaign about her healthcare plan. Questioned his foreign policy chops. And pushed him to reject the endorsement of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a virulent anti-Semite.
But Clinton the fighter kept meeting up with Obama the diplomat. He was unfazed by her criticisms and even bemused by her odd, defensive reference to a Saturday Night Live skit that skewered the press for going easy on him ("Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," she said, prompting some in the audience to groan).
There was substantive discussion about healthcare, NAFTA, and Iraq. But if undecided voters in Ohio and Texas, where potentially race-deciding primaries will be held Tuesday, tuned in to hear something new, they went away disappointed. Clinton's statement that she'd vote differently on going to war in Iraq if she had a do-over and Obama's acknowledgement that he'd been too busy campaigning to hold Senate oversight hearings on Afghanistan were as revelatory as it got.
Both faced tough questions about their changing positions on NAFTA. Clinton, who lent her own campaign $5 million last month, was pushed on her failure to release her tax returns. And Obama was dinged for fudging on whether he'd live up to an earlier promise to accept public funding for his general election campaign—a pledge complicated by his astounding fundraising success. (The campaign this morning hit the one million donor mark.)
But, in the end, it was Obama's night, largely for his unflappability. On the photo of him in ceremonial Somali garb that was posted in recent days on Drudge Report and was said to have come from Clinton's campaign? "Something we can set aside," he said. On negative campaigning? "We haven't whined about it" when he was the target, he said.
But it was on Iraq—and Clinton's vote to go to war—that Obama took off the gloves. After Clinton noted that they'd voted the same on every Iraq issue since he came to the Senate, he responded: "Once we had driven the bus in the ditch, there were only so many ways to get out." He then characterized Clinton's war vote as having "facilitated and enabled" President Bush.
In the end, when each was asked what his or her opponent needed to do to prove a worthy nominee, Obama responded simply that Clinton "would be worthy as a nominee." Clinton didn't return the favor: "I still intend to do everything I can to win," she said. And in less than a week, it very likely will be clear whether she'll still have a shot at the prize.