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The Democratic Debate

I already know from email that some colleagues disagree, but I saw a modest win for Hillary tonight. (And a clear win for the entire party, insofar as the race/gender feud of the past several days ground to a halt, despite the best efforts of moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams) As always, Obama's grandeur was flattened in the debate format--as opposed to the big stage with a rapt audience--while once again I thought Hillary's quick feet and policy chops shined through. Hillary also just seemed more in charge--whether she was chiding Russert and Williams for not asking enough "black/brown" questions, or zinging both Obama (readiness to face security challenges, voting for the "Dick Cheney" energy bill) and Edwards (flipping on Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site).

That said, her potshots make me wonder if she's sweating the polls more than she's letting on. Hillary also had a couple of weak moments. For instance, her explanation that she voted for the 2001 bankruptcy reform bill but was "happy that it never became law" strikes me as a dangerous flirtation with the narrative of "Clintonian" positioning, a la her answer about illegal immigrant drivers licenses. And, when asked about her biggest weakness, she seemed to make a half-effort at showing her "human" side again--this time by hinting at a realization that she strikes some people as overbearing at times. But her answer was an awkward euphemistic muddle that did her little good. (I'll grant that it was far better than Edwards's bold confession that, darn it, sometimes he just feels other people's pain too deeply. Not everyone has to be John McCain but Edwards increasingly seems like a wind up doll with about a dozen pre-programmed answers.)  

One highlight was the Obama-Hillary split about executive management. Obama was refreshingly self-deprecating when he confessed to a certain flakiness about keeping track of paper, and that he would need help with bureaucratic details. But I wonder if this went too far. Obama implied that a president should be above managing the flow of memos, which is true to a point. However, anyone who read the Washington Post's great series on how Dick Cheney assumed so much White House power will know that, in Washington, paper flow can equal power flow. (That said, after Hillary tried to score points on that answer, Obama came back with an effective "judgment" point about their difference on the Iraq invasion.)

So, I give Hillary a slight advantage tonight. But I don't see it doing much to change the race. The fact that 70 percent of African-Americans in Michigan tonight voted "uncommited" rather than for Hillary strikes me as a far more dramatic and relevant story.

--Michael Crowley