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The Vegas Debate

Earlier this week I had a conversation about Barack Obama with a rival campaign strategist. This summer, the strategist told me, Obama looked downright plaintive--like a man second-guessing his decision to run for president. No longer, said the strategist. In recent weeks, both the candidate and campaign have been acting like a team that expects to win.

I think we saw this second Obama on display tonight. He was focused, energized, tough, charismatic--pretty much everything the press had accused him of not being in previous debates. And yet the candidate who probably helped herself the most was Hillary Clinton.

Start with Obama, who, among other things, gave as good as he got in exchanges with Hillary over health care and Social Security. Obama was also as fluent as I've ever seen him on policy--his rationale for a trade deal with Peru stood out--and got off probably the best few quips of the night on Iraq ("[T]he notion that somehow because we've gone from horrific violence to just intolerable levels of violence ... that justifies George Bush's strategy is absolutely wrong.") and immigration ("[T]hey're not coming here to go to the In-N-Out Burger. ... They're here to work."). Like Hillary and Edwards before him, Obama did stumble somewhat over illegal immigrant driver's licenses, something Hillary's spinners gleefully highlighted after the debate. But, given that the question sheds zero light on what a candidate would do as president--it's a state-level issue; no president would introduce legislation granting the licenses, and no Democratic president would introduce legislation preventing states from granting them--it's a sin I'm willing to forgive.

Perhaps more important than these substantive questions was Obama's demeanor. He can sometimes sound like his mind is elsewhere in these formats--his responses are filled with "um"'s and "uh"'s and he avoids direct eye contact. Tonight he suppressed those tics and spoke with some of the passion you hear in his well-received speeches. He deftly used CNN's Wolf Blitzer as a foil after Blitzer assumed that a certain technology wouldn't improve any time soon. "Don't keep on assuming that we can't do something," Obama said. "This is about the third time where you said, 'assuming we can't do it.' ... I'm running for president because I think we can do it." The exchange was a little cheap--you could respond that way pretty much any time someone asks a question about present circumstances. But it somehow managed to distill the promise of Obama into a single, irresistible moment.

For her part, Hillary was back to her usual steady self after the brief vacation from history that was her previous performance. She made no mistakes, stuck up for herself when she had to, showed enough humanity to prove she's a member of the species. I think her line about being "comfortable in the kitchen"--that is, the place where all that heat is, which some people can't stand--is too clever by half. But she delivers it playfully enough that it somehow works.

One exchange in particular tonight was vintage Hillary: All the candidates were asked what they would do when human rights collide with national security. Obama gave a perfectly reasonable answer about how it's a false choice--supporting repressive regimes tends to make us less safe. A few moments later, Hillary looked straight at the camera and said, "The first obligation of the president of the United States is to protect and defend the United States of America." It's not something Obama would disagree with, and yet the line seemed to hint, almost subliminally, that he doesn't have the chops to be president. In that, it had a slight whiff of the now-famous Hillary-Obama exchange over meeting with foreign leaders, and I imagine the Clintonites will play it up in the coming days.

And that, in a nutshell, is why tonight has to be considered a success for Hillary--she nicely advanced the themes she needs to hit from here on out. The most compelling example came at the outset, during the moderator-induced bickering that's become de rigeur in these debates. Hillary's tack was to use health-care as a window onto her overall strengths vis-a-vis Obama and Edwards. To Obama, the claim was: Your plan leaves 15 million people uncovered; mine covers everyone. (Read: "You don't get the job done. I do.") To Edwards, the claim was: You were against universal coverage four years ago. I've supported it for decades. (Read: "I've been fighting for working people my whole career. You're a Johnny-come-lately.") It's a subtle but powerful way of getting at Hillary's central argument--that she's the candidate of strength and experience--and I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more of it over the next several weeks.

As for Edwards, he was his usual sharp self. He was solid when asked how he could accuse Hillary of double-talking after shifting his own position on several 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--both of which 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 real trouble came after Hillary addressed whether she'd been playing the "gender card," at which point Edwards chimed in to say everyone should be held to the same standard (perfectly legitimate), then launched into his critique of Hillary as part of a corrupt system. The latter seemed a little harsh and out of left field, and drew some boos from the audience (which, in fairness, seemed to tilt toward Hillary). We're not there yet, but if Edwards doesn't start moving up in the polls at some point, these kinds of comments are going to make him sound more like a spoiler than a truth-telling fighter.

--Noam Scheiber