Today's affair was more interesting than its GOP equivalent, but once again I don't see any basic shift in the dynamic. Perhaps my thinking is tainted by the context of the past few days, but I thought I saw a more confident and relaxed Barack Obama today. In other debates I've gotten the feeling Obama felt a bit psyched out. Today he had the almost cocky air of a winner.

The most illustrative moment--and the one likely to become a key soundbite--came when Obama was asked how he would depart from Clintonite foreign policy when his foreign policy team is composed largely of former Clintonites. Hillary interjected with one of her overexaggerated laughs and said (I think), "I want to hear this!" To which Obama, barely pausing for a beat, quipped, "Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well!" It was an oh-snap moment. And a trivial one, sure. But to me it conveyed an overall feeling I had from Obama that he's found his stride.

Another moment I liked from Obama: During a conversation about human rights and trade that started to bog down, Obama pivoted to Guantanamo bay, habeas corpus, and first-principle questions about America's image in the world. It was a deft and winning move.

Hillary once again emphasized her experience, and made several references to the successes of the 1990s, especially when it comes to the economy. But I thought I noticed--as I did with her new TV ad this morning--signs of concern that Iowans may still have trouble seeing Hillary as a "real" person. Asked about her New Year's resolution Hillary took care to strike personal notes like spending time with her family and exercising. (To be fair, other candidates, including Obama, mentioned their personal lives as well.) While calling for an energy independence Apollo Project I was struck by her reference to her desire as a schoolgirl to be an astronaut--another personal and humanizing moment. And when she was asked about Iowa she self-deprecatingly joked, "I've eaten my way across the state!" To me Hillary was a candidate looking to assure voters she is not a robot.

On a more positive side Hillary displayed her usual mastery of policy, as when she discussed the Medicare cost crisis. And, in one of the few strategically interesting moments of the debate, she introduced what I thought was a new contrast when she said, "Some people believe you get [change] by demanding it. Some people believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change." Hard pragmatic work versus unrealistic hopes and demands: That's the Hillary pitch in a nutshell.

Couple smaller thoughts: Solid but predictable performance from John Edwards, who smiled a lot and hammered at his Shrum-ian theme of  taking on powerful corporate interests. And I thought Joe Biden really shone in a couple of moments where he seemed like a genuine and empathetic guy. There's a growing buzz around Biden and today probably helps in that department. If Chris Dodd were to bomb in Iowa and quit the race, leaving just one white-haired senator who heads to New Hampshire, maybe Biden can overtake Richardson and cause some real waves down the line.

 

--Michael Crowley