— From NBC's Chuck Todd
If the last debate was the moment where Democrats realized that the Clinton coronation was, at least, postponed, this one will be known as the debate that seemed to sharpen the contrast between Clinton and Obama and create a gap between the big two and everyone else. The sparring between Clinton and Obama on a number of issues is likely to set the tone for some time. Edwards was hurt, partially, by the fact that Clinton and Obama were next to each other, while Edwards was off to the side.
This debate was about Clinton effectively fighting back, Obama sticking to his guns and separation between those two and everyone else.
As for Edwards, he just wasn't at his best tonight. His attempts at hitting Clinton early on fell flat. That little "planted question" line was out of place. What's interesting is that Edwards seemed to get it and went back to his comfort zone and ended the debate a lot stronger than he started. Of course, first impressions are everything and Edwards didn't make a strong first impression at this debate.
As for Obama, he did fine but, early on, missed a major opportunity. Obama showed his inexperience at debating. When Clinton hit him early on health care, Obama simply defended himself from the attack, rather than deflect the attack and hit back at her over the '93 health care reform failure. It was an easy hit for him, and he missed; he didn't even swing; got caught looking. Clinton is winning on "experience," not because of the practical experience she has as a former chief executive (she's never been one) but the experience she has as a politician, as a debater. Clinton would not have missed a similar opening.
Clinton ducked the immigration controversy that dogged her at the last debate because she only had to utter one simple word on the driver's license issue: "No." She didn't have to answer for the fact that she waited a few weeks to give a definitive answer. Meanwhile, the theatrics between the moderator and Obama over whether he was answering "yes or no" on the issue gave Clinton the moment on immigration THEY were looking for. Will this be the Clinton YouTube moment they push around? We'll see. (BTW, Clinton better be careful on NAFTA; her about face on the issue from what she said about the trade deal just one year ago is striking. No one tagged her on it tonight but don't be surprised if reporters pounce.)
Obama got his YouTube moment when he got to challenge the moderator on the issue of being a pessimist. Look for THAT in an email box near you VERY soon.
One final Clinton v. Obama point. Clinton really benefitted from the audience responses; I'd love to know who got tickets for this debate, whether one campaign was allowed to get more tix than another. Because the booing by the Clinton supporters when Edwards or Obama confronted Clinton were distracting to the candidates and did throw them off every now and then.
As for the rest of the field, Biden, again, had a good night. He keeps doing well at these debates; we'll see if he can use this to propel himself in Iowa. Richardson, btw, had one of his better performances, possibly his best. Dodd didn't get a lot of time but when he did speak, he seemed to be on message. Still, I bet the Dodd folks are lighting up CNN over the lack of face time.