Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 332
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama met in their nineteenth debate last night in Austin, Texas. The face-off occurred against a backdrop of crucial voting looming in Ohio and Texas on March 4, a winning streak for Barack Obama that has swelled to eleven consecutive victories with yesterday's win in the primary voting among Democrats Abroad, and new polls showing continuing momentum for Obama in his quest to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Here are a few thoughts on last night's debate.
Clinton came into the event trailing Obama in both pledged and overall delegate projections. The New York Times has Obama ahead 1,117 to 1,112 for Clinton, the Associated Press gives Obama a 1,178 - 1,024 edge, and RealClear Politics shows Obama ahead 1,363 to 1,271. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Clinton's lead has evaporated to a sliver in Texas and is also down considerably in Ohio, two states that are universally regarded as ones Clinton must win, and win big-time, to remain a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination.
All of which combined to present Clinton with enormous challenges, but also significant opportunities going into last night's debate. The Clinton campaign team feels that their candidate routinely bests Obama in head-to-head appearances, and looked to highlight what they feel are Clinton's superior experience and readiness for the Oval Office against what they contend to be a rhetorically gifted but substantively deficient Barack Obama. All told, last night's debate presented Hillary Clinton with a chance to change the storyline of the campaign and catapult herself back to relevance in her race against Barack Obama.
Barack Obama's objective, on the other hand, was to reinforce the momentum provided by his electoral winning streak of the previous fortnight and to project an image of presidential demeanor and competence to voters in Texas and Ohio, as well as the broader electorate.
Both candidates performed well, overall, presenting their competing policy proposals at length and in detail. Barack Obama succeeded in appearing presidential, above negative discourse, and comfortable with his position as the campaign's frontrunner and likely Democratic standard-bearer against Republican John McCain in November. Indeed, at times, Barack Obama appeared to look past Hillary Clinton and turned his fire squarely against George W. Bush and the GOP, while seeming as unworried about Clinton as he had in previous debates when addressing also-rans Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.
But Hillary Clinton had her moments, as well, including the evening's most replayed sound bite. Again raising charges first made during the campaign in Wisconsin earlier this week, Clinton alleged that Obama had plagiarized parts of his recent stump speeches, this time adding the mocking jab, "lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox."
That zinger, while it has earned plenty of airtime and discussion in the media overnight and into this morning, also earned a hearty round of immediate booing and jeering for Clinton from the audience in the debate hall itself. Barack Obama, in response, clearly saw Clinton's line as a spitball in the dirt, and calmly let it pass.
But without doubt, the award for the finest moment of the entire debate last night goes to...John Edwards. Seriously. In answering the last question of the debate, asking the candidates to recall difficult moments in their lives and how those experiences shaped them, an emotional Hillary Clinton said:
"Well, I think everybody here knows I've lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life. And I am grateful for the support and the prayers of countless Americans.
But...with all of the challenges that I've had, they are nothing compared to what I see happening in the lives of Americans every single day.
Whatever happens, we're going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that's what this election should be about."
Which looks like Hillary Clinton hitting a grand slam out of the park, until you recall these lines of John Edwards' from the conclusion of the Des Moines Register debate back on December 13, 2007:
"...remember that in the midst of political hoopla the glorification of politicians and presidential candidates that somewhere in America tonight a child will go to bed hungry, somewhere in America tonight a family will have to go to the emergency room and beg for health care for a sick child, that somewhere in America today a father who's worked for 30 or 40 years to support his family will lose his job, and that that's what's at stake in this election. What's not at stake are any of us. All of us are going to be just fine no matter what happens in this election. But what's at stake is whether America is going to be fine."
Which similarity might best be summarized as heartfelt authenticity you can Xerox.
But in the final analysis, Hillary Clinton lost last night's debate not because she lifted lines from John Edwards, but because nothing she said altered the narrative of the Democratic campaign as it now stands. Clinton came out of the debate as she entered it: a candidate who appears more vulnerable with each passing day, blinking in uncomprehending disbelief at the magnitude of her political reversals and unable to come up with anything to halt her skid.
Next Tuesday's debate in Ohio is Hillary Clinton's last, best chance to turn her campaign around. If she cannot do better there than she did last night in Texas, Hillary Clinton has no realistic hope of surviving as a credible candidate.