Texas Debate: Obama's Night

In fairness, both candidates were sick. Hillary Clinton almost lost her voice in recent days. Barack Obama has taken to blowing his nose in the middle of his stump speech. That might explain why both candidates seemed medicated on stage at the University of Texas in Austin on Thursday evening.

According to the advance notices, the penultimate debate of the Democratic nomination contest was going to be a snarling, eye-gouging fight to the death. It turned out to be more like nap time-for the first hour, anyway.

CNN's moderator Campbell Brown promised a real conversation between these two candidates. And that's what we got: a pleasant chat that did little to illuminate differences between the two and certainly did little change the dynamics of the race.

I'm happy to let her speak first and then can pick up on anything that's been left out, Obama said as he finished off an answer on the economy.

Well, I would agree with a lot of what Senator Obama has said, said Hillary Clinton in response. It did not seem like the kind of strategy designed to help reverse a 0-10 losing streak in primary and caucus states.

Fortunately the medication wore off after the first commercial break. At that point, CNN's John King correctly noticed that the candidates weren't nearly so nice to one another at campaign rallies in front of their own supporters.

Actions speak louder than words, said Clinton, noting that one of Obama's surrogates could not name a single one of his own candidate's legislative accomplishments during a much-replayed interview on MSNBC.

Well, I think actions do speak louder than words, Obama said, which is why over the 20 years of my public service I have acted a lot to provide health care to people who didn't have it, to provide tax breaks to families that needed it, to reform a criminal justice system that had resulted in wrongful convictions, to open up our government and to pass the toughest ethics reform legislation since Watergate, to make sure that we create transparency in our government so that we know where federal spending is going and it's not going to a bunch of boondoggles and earmarks that are wasting taxpayer money that could be spent on things like early childhood education.

Over the last few weeks, Obama has made inroads in some of Clinton's greatest areas of strength-polling better among Latinos, women, and voters with incomes under $50,000 a year. Thursday night, it seemed he was making a run at the one advantage that had previously seemed unassailable-her command of debates. It wasn't that Clinton stumbled; far from it. She displayed the same mastery of detail that has marked her performances all year. But she's not the front-runner now. And her deficit in the delegate count demands bolder action. She unveiled no new lines of attack, and the themes she has been hammering away at in recent weeks left the audience largely unmoved. When the question turned to the issue of Obama plagiarizing from his campaign co-chair Deval Patrick, Clinton got off a nice zinger: Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox, she said. But it's not the kind of game-changer Clinton needs right now, and Obama's response—that he should have credited the friend and adviser who gladly offered the passage for the candidate's use—has helped defuse the issue.

Meanwhile, Obama has gotten better at fending off the attacks; accustomed to her arsenal now, he sees them coming. When confronted with the accusation that he was all hat and no cattle, Obama turned the argument to his advantage. Senator Clinton of late has said: Let's get real. The implication is that the people who've been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional, he said. And that, you know, the 20 million people who've been paying attention to 19 debates and the editorial boards all across the country at newspapers who have given me endorsements, including every major newspaper here in the state of Texas. You know, the thinking is that somehow, they're being duped, and eventually they're going to see the reality of things.

Well, I think they perceive reality of what's going on in Washington very clearly. What they see is that if we don't bring the country together, stop the endless bickering, actually focus on solutions and reduce the special interests that have dominated Washington, then we will not get anything done.

Obama often came across as a reluctant warrior in early debates; he seemed to shy from making eye contact when attacking opponents, and let slip many an opportunity to bend answers to serve his agenda. His newfound front-runner status seems to be helping him conquer those problems. Now, the pressure to score points is off; he just has to avoid making any major gaffes-or giving Hillary the kind of chilly brush-offs that helped redound to her advantage in New Hampshire.

Memories of New Hampshire came flooding back in the final minutes of the debate-far and away Clinton's finest of the night. "As everybody knows, I've been through some crises in my life," she said, when asked about how she had been tested for the job she seeks. It was an oblique reference to the trials of her marriage-a subject she has only rarely discussed-and it instantly resonated with the crowd. She then acknowledged that her pain did not compare with what working men and women went through all the time-another resonant moment, reminiscent of John Edwards' crowd-pleasing lines (which echoed-plagiarized?-a Bill Clinton trope from 1992).

As the clock ran down, Clinton, once viewed as invincible and the inevitable Democratic nominee, seemed to acknowledge her opponents's strengths-and the possibility that she might not win. No matter what happens in this contest, she said, and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored. Whatever happens, we're going to be fine.

Within minutes, her campaign emailed reporters saying it was the moment she retook the reins of this race. Unfortunately it also sounded like the moment when she was ready to see someone else cross the finish line first.