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In the Democratic Debate, Cooler Heads Prevail

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Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) Barack Obama (Ill.) answered a final question at the Democratic debate Tuesday night at Cleveland State University in Ohio.

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By Tom Shales
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

People and pundits who carp when political debates get too harsh and hostile can be counted on to complain that last night's debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, televised on cable's MSNBC, was too tame and tepid. It was, in fact, a relief to find both Democratic presidential candidates in a temperate zone, though that's a space that Obama has occupied from the beginning. No matter how other candidates tried, getting Obama's goat has proved mission impossible.

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With the party's contenders having been whittled down like struggling singers on "American Idol," the 20th and probably final Democratic debate -- from Cleveland State University in Ohio -- was for the most part civil and thoughtful, not a fashion show of emotions as some have been. Even so, Clinton contributed some testy and erratic moments, and it was basically her fault that the debate bogged down for its first 16 minutes in minutiae about health-care proposals.

Try as they did, moderator Brian Williams and colleague Tim Russert, both of NBC News, could not get Clinton to budge off the topic and get onto something else. She seemed more determined to have the last word than to illuminate the issue and should have been more mindful of how this was playing in the American living room. She appeared unreasonably stubborn and fractious.

Finally, having had that precious last word, Clinton then complained about getting the first word. The prefatory health-care wrangle over, Williams turned to Clinton and asked the first formal question of the evening. She got mad all over again: "I seem to get the first question all the time" at the debates, she grumbled. Oh, she does? Well -- so what? Isn't there rather an advantage to speaking first? Is there perchance a vast right-wing conspiracy afoot?

Perhaps finally sensing that she was, in stand-up comedy parlance, dying and not killing, Clinton tried to lighten the tone by quoting a lame, one-joke sketch from the recent return of "Saturday Night Live." The one joke, perhaps less than one, was that the news media have been openly and lavishly biased in favor of Obama, a hugely arguable premise in the first place. Clinton made a reference to lines from the sketch about running off to get Obama a pillow so he'd be comfy in his chair and so on.

It wasn't any funnier than it had been on "SNL," though it was mercifully shorter.

Obama was king of the high road, especially at the close of the debate when he praised his opponent magnanimously, saying she had "campaigned magnificently." He called Clinton "an outstanding public servant" and said she would make a great president, adding that he would make a greater one. What could Clinton do to follow that? If she tried to one-up Obama by giving him praise more fulsome than he'd just given her, she'd be all but endorsing him and dropping out of the race. It was a deft touch by Obama, a no-lose proposition.

The gesture was particularly effective considering that early in the debate, videotape of two recent and seemingly conflicting statements by Clinton about Obama was played back. In the first clip, Clinton said she was "honored to be here with Barack Obama" at a debate and in the second she excoriated him in absentia with "Shame on you, Barack Obama," for alleged campaign transgressions. Asked how she justified the about-face, Clinton said she was a good and passionate fighter, or words to that effect.

It would seem certain that viewers who watched the debate and asked themselves which candidate they would rather listen to for the next four or eight years -- holding news conferences, giving speeches and doing fireside chats from the Oval Office -- would choose Obama purely on matters of speaking technique, eloquence and charisma. He is the most charismatic figure on the national political front since Ronald Reagan and is nearly as effective on television -- a great, if not "The Great," communicator.

As it happened, the debaters didn't get around to bashing the very bashable George W. Bush until half an hour into the proceedings -- having been preoccupied with criticizing (if gently) each other for the first 30 minutes. Commentators may complain that the debaters weren't scrappy or nasty enough, but those who made it through the whole 90 minutes got another opportunity to judge the candidates for style as well as content.

In the former category, at least, which is all we're judging in this column, Barack Obama was the victor by a hundred miles or so -- not as moving and electrifying as in his best speeches, but never in any trouble, either.


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