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First thoughts: Hillary gets cut

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Julia Steers

PHILADELPHIA, PA -- In the first question of the night, with all eyes on him especially after his recent New York Times interview, Obama had the, well, audacity to compare himself to Philly's own Rocky Balboa. But then in Round 1, he didn't seem to throw a punch, giving us the impression that he didn't want to fight. We were wrong. Minutes later, Obama, Edwards, and even Dodd duked it out with the front-runner Clinton, producing the liveliest and most contentious Democratic debate so far of the cycle. How did Clinton hold up? She was strong early on, particularly over the issue that many thought would be THE issue last night -- Iran -- but she got weaker as the night went on. The exchange over driver's licenses for illegal immigrants allowed her opponents to drive home a narrative that has begun to develop for Clinton at these debates: that she never actually answers the tough questions. Indeed, after last night, you might find a media more consistently fact-checking her on some specifics, which in turn will lead to a chorus of challengers accusing her of not taking a stand. This will be a critical test for her, and perhaps her final hurdle before the Chattering Class truly scores this primary as a unanimous decision for the front-runner.

*** Hillary gets cut: To stick with the boxing analogy, Clinton was still standing after all the punches were thrown. But she got cut, and everyone watching saw it. As one strategist for a non-frontrunner told First Read last night, this debate could end -- at least for now -- the inevitability storyline the press has been writing, which the strategist believes has fueled her rise in the polls. The best news for Clinton: Due to the debate's late start, many might not have seen the driver's licenses exchange. So far, in fact, that exchange hasn't been replayed that much the day after. But look for that to change, thanks as much to Clinton's primary foes as well as the GOP candidates (minus McCain) who love an opportunity to talk about immigration.

*** Obama and Edwards: As we mentioned above, Obama didn't seem at all interested in mixing it up early on. But then when NBC's Tim Russert asked Clinton about why her First Lady papers in Little Rock aren't available to the public, Obama found his opening and delivered what might have been his best line of the debates. The sky-high expectations put Obama in a difficult situation heading into last night, but despite his slow start, he seemed to meet them (although some pundits today disagree). As for Edwards, he might have provided a more consistent contrast with Clinton than Obama did, which his campaign was gunning for. To our eyes, it was Edwards' best debate to date, making us remember why he was such a successful trial lawyer. If there was a downside to his performance, it might have been that he was too aggressive -- and therefore too negative for the Iowa nice crowd, something the Obama folks are pinning their caucus hopes on.

*** The rest: Once again, Biden had the one-liner of the night (re: Giuliani). If Biden wasn't known as a gaffe machine -- and if he had more money -- he'd be a bigger player in this race. Dodd had perhaps his best debate of the cycle. His back-and-forth with Clinton over the driver's licenses (who knew Dodd would break with Democratic orthodoxy on the issue?)

was probably one of his best moments to date. He also got to talk issues he's made key to his campaign, like global warming. That said, he still talks WAY too much about legislation he sponsored, rather than about solutions he's proposing. Richardson did well on a few questions, but it was interesting that Biden singled him out -- as his campaign has done in recent press releases -- which tells us someone is truly playing for that close 4th place in Iowa.

*** Close encounters with Dennis: Speaking of having better nights, how about 'ol Dennis Kucinich?  He did a great job answering the UFO question (in which he confirmed he spotted an unidentified flying object), and the guy is a machine when it comes to staying on message. The bad news for Dennis: The UFO question is turning into the punchline highlight of the night, which may, at least, up his Q rating and get him a booking on Art Bell's out of this world late-night radio show.

*** One final debate thought: Consider that Clinton's primary rivals were much tougher on her viability arguments than Giuliani's primary foes have been at their debates. Will that change?

*** Trick or treat: On this Halloween Day, the Edwards family goes door-to-door in New Hampshire -- not campaigning, but trick-or-treating. The buzz is that the Obama family, in Chicago, also will be trick-or treating. What will their costumes will be? (Obama said at last night's debate that he'd be wearing a Romney mask, with two sides to it.) The Dodd campaign, in a press release yesterday, issued suggestion: white hair, a Constitution, and "a passion for service."
*** On the trail: Elsewhere today, Edwards -- unmasked -- holds two town halls in New Hampshire; Giuliani also stumps in the Granite State; Huckabee is all over FOX, appearing on five shows, including O'Reilly and Hannity; McCain speaks at the Kaiser Family Foundation's health-care forum in DC, then raises money in Virginia and New York City; and Thompson fundraises in California.

Countdown to Election Day 2007: 6 days
Countdown to Iowa: 64 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 69 days
Countdown to Michigan: 76 days
Countdown to SC GOP primary: 80 days
Countdown to Florida: 90 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 97 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 370 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 447 days

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