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The Vegas Debate

I scratched my head when I heard Chris Matthews proclaim Hillary the victor of tonight's debate on the strength of her "presidential"-ism and her Iraq maneuvering. There's no question Hillary looked confident and in-command, and that she's put her Iraq problems behind her. (Though I'd argue that happened a couple months ago.) Conversely, there were times when Obama seemed a little tired and out of it. But I think this plane of analysis mostly misses what had happened last night.

For the last week, you could sense the campaign obsessives becoming increasingly pessimistic about Obama's chances. This happened for two reasons. First, an extensive discussion of race seemed to force Obama into the role of "black candidate." Second, Hillary's questions about the steadfastness of Obama's war opposition made him look like a typical equivocating politician. The thinking was that Hillary would win if the race became a competition between a "white candidate" and a "black candidate," or a race between two conventional candidates. Worse, Hillary seemed able to impose these frames on the race almost at will. If Obama ignored the charges, he risked having them stick. And if he engaged, he risked becoming exactly what he wanted to avoid--either an aggrieved African American or a bickering pol.

That's the way it looked until the last day or so, in any case. What Obama demonstrated last night is that he's just as capable of imposing his own frame on the race. Each time he took a question about race or the recent bickering, he responded with his trademark uplift and forced Hillary to respond in kind.

Granted, the Clintonites were clearly ready to end the ugly skirmish themselves. But I got the sense there was much more happy talk than they preferred. If this becomes a contest to see who can be more unifying and high-minded, Hillary will have problems.  

I saw two specific moments when this dynamic came through last night. The first was on the question of the campaigns' respective surrogates. Obama was asked about a document in which his South Carolina press secretary had catalogued all the racial affronts Clinton and her surrogates had committed. Obama said he regretted it "not only in hindsight but going forward." He added: "[I]t is my responsibility to make sure that we're setting a clear tone in our campaign. And I take that responsibility very seriously, which is why I spoke yesterday and sent a message... Now, there are going to be significant issues that we debate and some serious differences that we have... What I am absolutely convinced of is that everybody here [i.e., Clinton and Edwards] is committed to racial equality, has been historically."

For her part, Clinton also made the necessary statements about getting beyond divisiveness. But on the specific question of surrogates, she fell flat, saying she took BET founder Bob Johnson at his (highly implausible) word when he tried explaining away an obvious allusion to Obama's teenage drug-use. 

Obama was magnanimous and winning. Hillary was clenched and grudging. The comparison wasn't especially flattering to her.

The second relevant moment came toward the end of the debate, when Obama fielded a question about why so many African Americans drop out of school at every level. His response started off wonky and small-bore, focusing on early-childhood education and how the return on such programs is exceptionally high. But, before long, he was waxing eloquent about how the problem is a lack of resolve in the White House, not a lack of solutions. "[L]et's be clear," he said. "We have good answers for how to make these schools work. What we don't have is a sense of urgency in the White House." Then it was onto a winning riff about being raised by a single mother, and how education had been his lifeline. For good measure, he closed with a tough-love admonition to African-American fathers to take parenting seriously.

And Hillary? Tim Russert was set to move on when she flagged him to say: "This is what I've done for 35 years. We've got to do more to give families the tools and the support that they should have so that they can be the best parents. ... It's not only the family; it's not only the school system. We all have a role to play. "

Perfectly adequate stuff. But, as I say, a competition in uplift is not a competition Hillary wins. 

--Noam Scheiber