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First thoughts

From NBC's Chuck Todd and Mark Murray
*** One Down, About Twenty to Go: Well, that was fun, wasn't it? Who looked good in last night's debate? Who didn't? Our thoughts are below. Listen carefully to the Democratic candidates' stump speeches today for new additions that might signal what they liked and didn't. Also, be on the lookout for YouTube submissions of clips from the debate that opponents may want to highlight about one or more of the front-runners. One thing we do know for certain: The first debate is behind us, and there are many more to go -- including next week's GOP debate in L.A., moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

*** Clinton: Hillary was Hillary. You've got to admit, she doesn't make mistakes and didn't last night (but did get a little flustered on hedge funds). Of course, she didn't directly answer some questions, either (like on whether Iraq is "lost"). And the RNC pounced on her comment that she had been advocating withdrawal from Iraq "for a number of years now." But the Clinton people, by and large, were happy with her performance.

*** Obama: Or maybe the Clinton folks were happy that they didn't have the questions surrounding them that Obama did. Perhaps no one seemed more uncomfortable with the tight format. If there are future debates allowing for 90-second or 2-minute responses, he'd likely do better. His speaking style is more professorial than political, which goes hand in hand with the message that he's trying to getting across: that he represents change.

*** Edwards: He acted like the most experienced debater on the stage, and he was. No one there has debated more times in the past four years than Edwards. He handled the haircut question well, but was mixed on the hedge fund one.

*** Richardson: Outside of Obama, the candidate many were waiting to see shine was Richardson, but he wasn't comfortable and it came across. His answer on the model Supreme Court justice might be a future problem. He picked Byron "Whizzer" White -- a Rhodes Scholar/football star from the West, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by JFK. The problem, especially for a Democrat? He dissented in Roe v. Wade.

*** Dodd: He was prepared and is a total pro. But he never owned a moment. And this raises one of the biggest questions of his candidacy: How does he separate himself from the front-runners? His support for legislation like Reid-Feingold (which he talked about last night) is one way he's trying to do this, but it hasn't yet forced the other candidates to take a position.

*** Biden: He may well have hit a homerun on the question about his verbosity and verbal gaffes with his simple "Yes" (and nothing more), which made everyone laugh. Overall, a solid performance. Still, at the end of the day, he faces the same problem Dodd does: How does he break from the pack?

*** Kucinich: He was the first and only true rule-breaker in last night's debate by whipping out a copy of the Constitution. But he seemed like a legitimate front-runner on the stage compared with Gravel.

*** Gravel: Which brings us to… He was entertaining, even comical -- but was also rude to his fellow candidates. Does he get invited to any more debates?