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First thoughts: 'Civil' War

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro

CLEVELAND -- Last night's debate here had a very tense feel to it -- the combination of two very competitive Democratic candidates, two very tough questioners, it being the final showdown until the March 4 primaries, and there being so much at stake. Bottom line: Both Clinton and Obama were put on the spot and survived. Clinton came armed with her own material on Obama's record (including some new hits like the lack of hearings on his Senate subcommittee) and tried to keep him on the defensive, but he handled the pressure. Obama might have had more negative YouTube moments than Clinton, because of the initial waffle on the Farrakhan answer (though he did clean it up pretty well) and his look to Clinton to answer the Russia question first; it was clear Obama didn't want first dibs on that question. But Clinton didn't hit that question out of the park, either. She had the chance to show her real foreign policy chops and didn't. And her answers on releasing her IRS records (don't she and Bill have an accountant?) and releasing her White House schedules weren't that strong.

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on how Hillary Clinton's Saturday Night Live comment had a greater point in last night's debate.

*** It wasn't a game-changer: Given those things, it's hard to see last night's debate as changing the trajectory of this race, and that's ultimately good news for the front-runner Obama. He was a bit more defensive last night than last week and had more stumbles than in more recent encounters. But there was a reason for that: He received some very tough questions. The Farrakhan one put him between a rock (Jewish voters) and a hard place (some African-American ones), and the Russia question had the potential of making him look small compared with Clinton -- if she had nailed the question. But she didn't. Clinton really flubbed that "SNL" line. Like the "Xerox" one from last week, it seemed rehearsed. And to echo NBC's David Gregory, what's wrong with getting the first question? It allows one to set the tone of the debate…

VIDEO: MSNBC's Chris Matthews tells Keith Olbermann that Sen. Barack Obama's thrill factor is missing in his debates and is only visible in his speeches.

*** A "civil" war: It was a contentious but civil debate (South Carolina seems so long ago). And no matter who ends up winning, both will probably be better nominees for it. It's hard to pick a winner. Clinton was more prepared, but Obama survived under some tough questions from the moderators and volleys from Clinton, and that's probably the name of the game for him at this late date in the campaign. And a final point: Obama being seated really helps him. He doesn't have to shout into a microphone. He can deliver his subtle zingers, but with a calm, collected tone. Now on to the contests in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont

*** Obama's financial advantage: Watching local TV here in Ohio, it feels like Obama has a 4-to-1 advantage -- with SEIU, UFCW and Obama just blitzing the airwaves compared with Clinton. It's happening in all four states. In fact, per TV ad expert Evan Tracey, Obama has outspent Clinton $23 million to $14 million in the last 30 days. How is she expected to hold a big lead if she gets outspent this badly? The third party groups are like salt in the Clinton wound.

*** I'm sorry, so sorry, please accept my apology: McCain apologizing yesterday after a radio host who introduced the Arizona senator referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama" was another reminder of how many apologies we've seen in this race -- many of them to Obama. Off the top of our head, there was Biden (for the "clean" and "articulate" remark), Billy Shaheen (for wondering if Obama ever sold drugs), Bob Johnson (another drugs reference), and now McCain (for the shock jock's "Barack Hussein Obama" line). It reflects just how hard it is to run against Obama. As Peggy Noonan wrote earlier in the month, "Hillary is the easier candidate, Mr. Obama the tougher. Hillary brings negative; it's fair to hit her back with negative. Mr. Obama brings hope, and speaks of a better way. He's not Bambi, he's bulletproof." NBC's Abby Livingston also makes this observation: While some Clinton surrogates were late to apologize to Obama, McCain did it very quickly. If the Clintons -- of all people -- can get into trouble with African Americans for statements about Obama, then just think of some of the troubles McCain might have. 

VIDEO: A campaign speaker's attack on Barack Obama before a John McCain rally prompted an apology from the Arizona senator. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

*** On the trail: Clinton attends an "Economic Solutions Summit" in Zanesville, OH, then campaigns in St. Clairsville, OH; Obama holds a rally in Columbus and then campaigns in Duncanville, TX, and San Marcos, TX; McCain also campaigns in Texas, including town halls in Tyler and San Antonio, and two fundraisers in Houston; and Bill Clinton makes five stops in the Lone Star State, hitting early voting events in Houston and Austin and a rally at the University of Texas at Austin.

Countdown to Ohio and Texas: 6 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 251 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 328 days

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