From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** The Carolina cage match: Watching last night's Democratic debate was much like the first time you witnessed a fight at lunchtime in high school: It was exhilirating, memorable, and a bit horrifying at the same time. While it wasn't akin the rumble scene in the rain in "The Outsiders," it was easily the most heated debate to date. The candidates -- particularly Obama and Clinton -- were, well, angry and it got personal. Obama, in particular, seemed to have a lot he wanted to get off his chest. He began on the offense, but once Edwards got into the act, Obama was put on defensive, which we're guessing wasn't the game plan. Of course, when you're the candidate under fire, it usually means you're ahead. And at least in South Carolina, that's where Obama is.
Video: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's squabbling during Monday night's Democratic debate in South Carolina.
*** Debate 101: As we and others keep on saying, Obama has improved a lot as debater since April. Nevertheless, he consistently got caught in a debate trap by responding to every charge with an explanation. It's a stand-up thing to do, but it ends up putting him off message. And it allows for the attack to get more air time rather than the original point or message Obama meant to be heard. Clinton, by contrast, rarely answers a charge directly and instead deflects by counter-punching, which shows her discipline. Of course, that difference epitomizes their candidacies: Clinton is the disciplined political street fighter, quick to score points against the opposition; Obama, meanwhile, tries to be transparent and accountable -- even as those goals, as last night's debate sometimes showed, aren't always easy to achieve.
*** A more polite second half: Obama seemed to get that he got a bit too hot, because in the second part of the debate, he refused a new chance to go after Bill Clinton a second time. And in this second half, Obama was particularly strong: His answers on religion and his national security rebuttal to Clinton were very good. That strong second-half performance will blunt any potential negative backlash he received in the first part. But, overall, the campaign probably believes they showed that he's tough enough and they did want to continue to push the idea that the Clintons will say and do anything to win -- which could very well be their chief weakness. In fact, this will be the GOP narrative if Clinton wins the nomination.
*** When candidates attack: As for Clinton, she never looks good on the attack -- and she didn't last night. But because she was getting in the mud with Obama, the two neutralized each other at best. Of course, one of her goals last night was probably simply avoiding a major gaffe as she's headed out of the state and is somewhat downplaying her chances by staying out of South Carolina for three days. Another goal, as others have pointed out, might have been to bloody Obama in front of February 5th voters who were tuning in. While Obama reminded the audience that the Clintons will bend the truth to further their goals, Clinton tried to hammer home the message that Obama stands on the sidelines (those "present" votes) and isn't as consistent as he claims he is (on Iraq and health care.) That was all new information for February 5th viewers. And will she keep it up when Clinton holds a press conference -- taking place as we publish -- in DC?
*** Edwards as Rodney King: Edwards had the easiest last night: He got to look like the above-it-all guy. That's at leaset better than being the third wheel, which to some he may ALSO have looked. When you aren't as competitive as your two opponents, it's easy to play the mediator, and he did it well. He did no damage to his favorable rating (which is generally high), but did he do enough to start climbing back above that 15% threshold he needs to keep getting delegates? On points, Edwards can call himself the winner since he got to make the easy can't-we-all just-get-along points. But the center of attention for this debate was Obama. And, ultimately, that's probably a good thing for the South Carolina front-runner.
*** The Bill Clinton factor: He's now Obama's chief challenger in South Carolina for most of this week, since candidate Clinton is doing a February 5 tour of CA., AZ, and NJ over the next two days. Short term, Bill Clinton's been an asset, but how long can candidate Clinton have her husband out there "yelling at the neighbors" for her. Does the dynastic stuff become a problem for candidate Clinton at some point the higher profile her husband takes? We've heard from quite a few GOP strategists who aren't unhappy with Bill's high profile. He's becoming less statesman-like and may just be as helpful in rallying the Republican base as some believe she will be. Still, for the primary, the use of Bill appears to be effective. Obama looked like every Republican critic of Bill Clinton over his eight years, flummoxed that he was losing to this guy.
*** GOP musings: And while last night's debate has placed most of the presidential focus on the Democratic side, there are some GOP developments to keep an eye on: The GOP intelligentsia is starting to come around to the idea that McCain could be their guy; Huckabee is no longer providing transportation for his traveling press and seems to be turning his attention AWAY from Florida; and Thompson is down tending to his ill mother -- he has no public schedule today.
*** On the trail: Edwards and Obama are in South Carolina. Hillary Clinton, however, is not. Her husband makes three stops on her behalf instead in Aiken, Anderson and Greenville; Edwards hosts a town hall in Conway and then appears on The Late Show with David Letterman. Obama holds four events, including two rallies, in Greenville, Greenwood, Lexington and Orangeburg. The Republicans are in Florida for the most part: Giuliani stops in at a deli in Palm Beach Gardens; Huckabee partakes in a pro-life march in Atlanta (Georgia's a Feb. 5 state) and then raises money in Gainesville; McCain holds two rallies in Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach, then raises money in New York City; Paul is in DC; Romney stops in Boca Raton (where he meets with the Republican Jewish Coalition), then heads to Coral Springs and Naples.
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 4 days
Countdown to Florida: 7 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 14 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 287 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 364 days