A Missed Opportunity?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; 8:51 AM

What happened to "shame on you"?

Hillary Clinton's anger over the weekend at Barack Obama's attacks on her health-care plan flattened into a wonky debate at last night's MSNBC debate, with the former first lady earnestly arguing about mandates and cost control. Now obviously you can't appear too angry in a televised face-off, but her sense of righteous indignation evaporated in the torrent of details, as the candidates defended their respective plans.

Great. But we've heard this debate a dozen times before. It's not a game-changer in Texas and Ohio. And it hasn't exactly worked for her in the last 10 primaries.

Then it was on to Hillary's charge that Barack was fibbing by saying she had supported NAFTA in the past.

"I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning," even though she didn't have a "public position" on the trade treaty--given the inconvenient detail that her husband had pushed it through Congress. In other words, she was against that treaty before her husband was for it.

Then it was off to another wonkfest on trade policy.

Brian Williams gave her a chance to say that Obama wasn't prepared to be commander in chief. She ducked again, perhaps not wanting to give the Republicans ammo if he becomes the nominee. Instead, she said Obama, despite his opposition to the war, voted to fund it just like she did. And besides, he threatened to bomb Pakistan! And he would meet with bad dictators! Obama, naturally, came back to his 2002 denunciation of the war. And he said he would go after al-Qaeda types in Pakistan if the Pakistani government refused to act.

Williams and Tim Russert threw most of the tough questions at Clinton during the first part of the debate, in part because they were pressing her to back up her charges against her Democratic rival.

Obama deftly used humor to defuse Hillary's mockery of him as a messiah (when MSNBC played the wrong tape), then pivoted to his accomplishments to show he's not all talk and no action. Oh, and there's nothing "romantic" or "silly" in his rhetoric.

The moderators began pressing Obama until more than an hour in, when Russert cited the senator's second thoughts about accepting public financing in the fall: "You seem to be waffling . . . Why won't you keep your word?" Obama sidestepped by saying he's not yet the nominee. "You may break your word," Russert responded. He also asked about Louis Farrakhan's endorsement, and Obama quickly denounced him as an anti-Semite. He backed off and complied when Clinton shrewdly demanded that he go further and reject Farrakhan's support.

Bottom line: Both candidates acquitted themselves well. But Hillary Clinton is trailing and needed to grab some kind of advantage in this, the last debate before the March 4 contests. And I don't see where she did that.

"For 90 minutes in Cleveland on Tuesday night," says the L.A. Times, "Clinton stung coolly and repeatedly at Barack Obama's weak spots, employing everything in her arsenal -- from her confident command of world affairs to a frosty smile that flickered every time she was displeased with his answers.

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