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First thoughts: Did Iraq tip debate?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Did Iraq tip the debate to Obama? We thought last week's contentious and (at times) mean-spirited debate nearly resembled that rumble-in-the-rain scene in "The Outsiders." Yet last night's Clinton vs. Obama event was quite different. Given their polite exchanges, the cordial tone, and the Hollywood setting, we'd have to say that the debate seemed -- at least to Democrats tuning in -- like one of those feel-good movies in which the protagonists, against all odds, come together and win the day: "Remember the Titans," "Stand and Deliver," "Shawshank Redepmtion." Cue the slow clap. As far as evaluating the debate, it was tough to pick a winner in the first hour. Both made very professional and nice impressions in what had to be one of the largest debate audiences to date. Then came Iraq -- an issue that had virtually disappeared from the campaign trail and past debates -- and Clinton once again showed why the issue has been such an Achilles heel for her. Obama just has an easier time talking about his position, while Clinton has to re-explain why she was for it and why she's not for it now. If the debate were being scored like a boxing match, the first 60 minutes would have been judged as a draw, but the last 30 minutes would have been given to Obama on points, thanks to the Iraq issue.

*** Levin Amendment returns: Speaking of Iraq, Clinton was asked a question she doesn't always get: Why she voted against the 2002 Levin amendment, which would have required more diplomacy before the US went to war against Iraq. At the debate, Clinton answered as she normally does, "The way that amendment was drafted suggested that the United States would subordinate whatever our judgment might be going forward to the United Nations Security Council. I don't think that was a good precedent. Therefore, I voted against it."  But as Al Hunt recently wrote, "It did no such thing, Levin said at the time and a spokesman reiterates now. The proposal's language explicitly required that Congress 'not adjourn' before it 'promptly considers proposals related to Iraq if the United Nations fails to adopt such a resolution.' Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat who, like Senator Clinton opposed the Levin amendment, said at the time the UN charge was 'specious' and that this was a vote about supporting an invasion." Rezko became a household name after last week's debate. Will the same be true of the Levin amendment after last night?

*** The debate gap narrows: Overall, it was a strong night for Obama, as he proved that he belonged on the same stage as Clinton. And that's an important accomplishment, because you keep wondering whether undecided voters are waiting to see if Obama can prove his mettle for the presidency. There's a theory that believes just that. And if that theory is true, then last night's debate could prove to be very important to Obama. The audience was undecided voters and former Edwards supporters, and we're guessing these folks have a fairly low bar for Obama to prove himself to them, compared to the bar they have for Clinton since they are still not on board with the more well-known candidate. Also, think about the progress Obama has made in debates since last spring. Clinton regularly cleaned his clock at those events, but now that advantage seemed to disappear. And Clinton can't afford for that gap to disappear. Was last night akin to Reagan and Carter in '80 or Kennedy and Nixon in '60? We'll find out Tuesday.

*** In for the long haul: It's also interesting that neither candidate seemed to be feeling the pressure of losing on February 5. If anything, you got the sense that both Clinton and Obama realize this campaign could go on a few more months, so there was no sense throwing any desperate attacks last night. Neither candidate took crazy shots at each other, which tells us that neither thinks they are behind. Speaking of this campaign going on beyond February 5, the Obama campaign has made TV ad buys for the post-Feb. 5 states, thanks to an incredible $32 million one month financial windfall. It's a reminder that on the financial resource front, while Clinton's isn't wanting, Obama is outspending her on the air (narrowly) and on the ground. Who's the underdog again?

*** A final thought: CNN didn't do the Democratic Party any favor last night by filling the audience with celebrities. Maybe that's good for CNN to have those folks to cut to during the broadcast, but it only feeds into the perception that Hollywood and the Democratic Party are inseparable, and that perception hasn't always been a winner for Democrats at the ballot box. Not surprisingly, the Republican National Committee seized on this in a statement last night: "The Hollywood elites loved the Obama and Clinton show tonight, but average Americans who will most feel the pain of the Democrats' misguided policies will not."

*** Post-mortem preview? With Mitt Romney on the ropes, the post-mortems are inevitable; call them O-Mitt-uaries. Anyway, we're starting to hear from a lot of smart Republican strategists about what happened. And the thing that everyone seems to come back to is Romney's religion. Why? Ask yourself: Without the issue of Romney's religion, does Mike Huckabee ever take off? Because Mike Huckabee is the single biggest obstacle to Romney coalescing economic and social conservatives behind him to take on McCain. Take a close look at the Florida results by county from Tuesday night. In more than half of Florida's 67 counties (37 to be exact), the Romney-Huckabee combined vote total equaled or surpassed 50%. And in those counties, 17 of them tipped to McCain. Well, extrapolate this out to, say, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee or Georgia this Tuesday. Will the combined Romney-Huck total surpass 50% while delivering all four states to McCain? Now, if Romney hadn't given evangelicals second thoughts simply over his religion, would Mike Huckabee have happened? It may be Romney needs another four years to convince evangelicals his religion won't interfere with their priorities.

*** Connally record broken! First Read friend and longtime Hill watcher Billy Moore (D) makes a very good observation. For 27 years, he says, John Connally held the record for most money spent in a presidential campaign for a single delegate. The crown has now passed to Rudy Giuliani. Rudy spent $49 million and won just one delegate. By comparison, Connally in '80 spent $11 million for his one delegate; Phil Gramm in '96 spent $19 million for his eight; and Dick Gephardt spent $21 million for his 15.

*** On the trail: Clinton remains in California, where she holds a town hall (in San Diego), a rally (in San Jose), and fundraiser (in San Francisco); Huckabee visits Oklahoma and Arkansas; McCain stumps in California, Missouri, and Illinois; Obama heads to New Mexico for an economic summit in Albuquerque and rally in Santa Fe (by the way, should we be on endorsement alert in New Mexico?); and Romney campaigns in California, Colorado, and Utah. Also, Bill Clinton is in Atlanta and Arkansas, and Ted Kennedy is in East L.A. and then San Francisco.
 
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 4 days
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Countdown to Election Day 2008: 277 days
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