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Quickie Debate Wrap-up

This was a solid night for Obama. He was focused, energized, tough, charismatic. Sometimes he can sound like his mind is elsewhere while answering a question--there are lots of "um"s and "uh"s and not much direct eye contact. Tonight he suppressed most of those tics. He showed some pluck in exchanges with Hillary on health care and Social Security. He was specific and knowledgeable on trade policy and immigration, even showing spontaneous flashes of humor on the latter. His only rough patch came on that infernal illegal alien driver's license question, which to my mind shouldn't even be asked. If the story line going into tonight was Obama building momentum, then I see no reason why it wouldn't continue.

Hillary was steady--she committed no mistakes, stuck up for herself when she had to, all in all regained her footing in this format. I think the mission for Clinton tonight was to begin to lay the groundwork for her "closing argument" with voters and against Edwards and Obama. She accomplished both of those things. You heard lots of talk about strength and experience, and she deftly used health-care policy as a window onto her advantages vis-a-vis her rivals. To Obama, the argument was: your plan leaves 15 million people uncovered, mine covers everyone. (Read: "You don't get the job done. I do.") To Edwards, the argument was: you were against universal coverage four years ago, I've been for it for decades. (Read: "I've been fighting for middle class people my whole career. You're a Johnny come lately.") She only gave us a taste of those critiques tonight, but they're very effective and I think we'll see more of them.

Edwards was his usual sharp self. He had a solid response when asked how he could acccuse Hillary of double-talking when he himself had shifted positions on a number of issues since 2004. (Answer: Anyone who doesn't change their mind when circumstances change is ignorant. But that's different than telling different people different things at the same time.) He also worked in a tough critique of the (Bill) Clinton era: In 1993, when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, they failed to pass health care and succeeded in passing NAFTA--and both results hurt working people. The upshot, says Edwards, is that you have to elect someone who's willing to take on special interests; not just any Democrat will do. The only potential trouble spot for Edwards came after Hillary addressed the question of whether she'd been playing the "gender card." Blizter then asked if anyone else had thoughts on the question, at which point Edwards chimed in to say everyone should be held to the same standard (perfectly reasonable), then launched into his critique of Hillary being a part of the corrupt system in Washington. The latter seemed a little harsh and out of left field, and drew some boos from the audience. I don't think it was a huge deal, but if, by the time the caucuses roll around, people think Edwards has jumped the shark with his attacks on Hillary, we could look back on this as the moment it became clear.

Biggest loser: Wolf Blitzer--just an extremely lousy moderator. If felt like he'd start cutting people off ten seconds into their responses, and then would keep nudging them with rapid-fire "alrights" even once it was clear they were wrapping up. Very annoying.

A more detailed version to come.

--Noam Scheiber