From NBC's Chuck Todd
The focus on this debate for so many in New Hampshire and the media was twofold -- how would Obama handle being the frontrunner and how would Clinton handle be the challenger. Well, thanks to a subdued format, Obama seemed to pass his test with flying colors. He got to look in command (telling Edwards, politely, when it was his turn to speak); he defended himself against Clinton by lecturing her tone and then got to look like the "normal" one by letting the moderator know who won the 'Skins game.
I'm not sure David Axelrod could have scripted this debate better if he did it himself.
Clinton as challenger? Well, she was dealt a real bodyblow when Edwards decided to defend Obama from the Clinton attack early on in the debate; that exchange will be the one played over and over again, and it's not good for Clinton.
She recovered a bit in the second half of the debate; she warmed up with the "my feelings are hurt" line and she made one of her most effective contrasts against Edwards and Obama on the issue of change. But the damage from that first exchange and the fact that Richardson made attacking each other personally a problem seemed to limit Clinton's rhetorical mobility.
Edwards, btw, had a very good night; he got to look a bit more positive and a little less angry by being the guy who defended Obama. His strategy seemed to be to go for the political kill on Clinton, thinking that he'll have a better chance beating Obama in a one-on-one than beating Clinton. Not sure I agree with him on this strategy but it's clearly his campaign's strategy.
Richardson obviously benefitted from the shrunken field; he got off some of the better lines of the night and probably did himself some good; just not sure who he will woo over to his side since the independents seem so enamored right now with Obama. Still, Richardson showed he could have done well if the formats had been this low-key and the field this small.
Still, the story of this debate is the gang-up on Clinton. It's interesting, Clinton may now be the candidate who needs to get Obama in a one-on-one; Edwards and Richardson are now distractions and are complicating her ability to go after Obama; Obama, meanwhile, needs the extra candidates. Amazing how things change; a few weeks ago, the larger field seemed to benefit Clinton more than Obama. This is how fast things can change in this era of the 24/7 news cycle. Toss in the compressed calendar and realize things could either change quickly again or end a lot sooner than any of us realized.