Hollywood, Calif. -- The much-anticipated Tinseltown one-on-one Democratic debate tonight lacked much of the drama that had been widely predicted and proceeded on a relatively cordial tone, with candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama refusing to directly confront each other during much of the near two-hour long showdown.
Some verbal skirmishing briefly flared over the issue of Iraq and health care, but those expecting any sort of knock-down drag-out battle in this final debate before next Tuesday's avalanche of primaries came away disappointed. The candidates often emphasized the differences they have with Republicans over their own disagreements.
"We're having a wonderful time," Clinton said with a smile and laugh toward the end of the first face-to-face debate between the two Democratic challengers.
"The differences between Barack and I pale between the differences we have with Republicans," Clinton said But, she added, "We do have differences." Singling out foreign policy, Clinton argued that America must be "realistic and optimistic but we start with realism" and she said she doesn't think the next president should "put the prestige of the presidency on the line" by meeting with what she called five of the world's worst dictators. The former First Lady was referring to earlier statements by Obama that he would be open to meeting with America's global opponents.
Obama said one of his greatest differences with Clinton was on the issue of the war on Iraq. "I was opposed to Iraq from the start," Obama said. "I say that not to just look backward but also forward," he added, arguing that sound judgment was needed by the next president in order to avoid future, avoidable wars.
At another later point in the debate, Obama said that while he and Clinton are in agreement on many aspects of eventual troop withdrawal from Iraq, he differed with his rival on what he called possible "mission creep" - the long-term stationing of American troops in Iraq to blunt Iranian influence in the area. Obama implied that Clinton had employed poor judgment in voting to authorize the war in Iraq in 2002.
Clinton answered by repeating her oft-used campaign line that "if I knew then what I know now I would have never voted to authorize" the war in Iraq. She also said that her vote was not necessarily one for war but for more aggressive diplomacy.
When asked by CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer why she just didn't concede her original authorization vote was a mistake, Clinton said "no one could have fully appreciated how obsessed this president was with this particular mission" of going to war and that talking to Bush was like "talking to a brick wall."
Blitzer then elicited a round of booing from the audience when he followed up by asking if Clinton was saying she was, therefore, "naïve."
Obama escalated the fray by pointing out that "the legislation, the authorization, had the title, 'An Authorization to Use Military Force in Iraq,'" and that he thought "everyone was very clear about it."
"One of the arguments Senator Clinton is making is that you have to have experience on day one," he said. "I'm saying it's important to be right on day one." Obama's remark drew the loudest applause of the evening.
Clinton also received a loud positive audience response earlier in the debate when asked if the American people might not be tiring of alternating Bush/Clinton administrations. She said, "It took a Clinton to clean up after one Bush. It might take another to clean up after a second one."
The candidates cautiously sparred on the potentially explosive issue of immigration with Obama rejecting a moderator's question that assumed that African-Americans were suffering because of illegal immigration. America's working poor were feeling economic uncertainty "before the latest round of immigrants showed up," Obama said. "We should not use immigration as a tactic to divide."
Obama tried to sweep Clinton into an argument over the issue, noting "this is where we have a very real difference." Referring to Clinton's stumble on the issue of drivers' licenses for the undocumented in a debate last fall, he turned to Senator Clinton and said, "Initially in a debate, you said you were for it. Then you said you were against it."
Clinton hesitated to fully engage the controversy but mentioned that she had co-sponsored immigration reform in 2004 "before Barack was in the Senate." "I have been on record on this against the demagoguery and mean-spiritedness" of those who oppose immigration reform, she told the audience.
The two candidates gently tangled on the universal health care issue with Obama criticizing the mandated purchase of insurance policies that are the center of Clinton's plan. "You can mandate it but there still will be people who cannot afford it," Obama said. Obama said he was intent on "bringing all parties together" to get a plan approved and that those negotiations would be "broadcast on C-Span."
Clinton rebutted the argument saying her plan "has been designed to be affordable with health care tax credits." She said was "proud" of her record on the issue.
The debate started on a friendly note with Obama proclaiming, "I was friends with Hillary Clinton before this debate and will be friends with her after." But even in those opening seconds, the Illinois senator took a veiled swipe at his rival: "What's at stake is whether we are looking forward or looking backward, whether we are looking at the future or at the past."
Clinton also opened on a non-antagonistic note, saying she was best qualified to deal with the "stack of problems" that would inevitably be on the next President's desk on his or her first term.
Tonight's CNN/Politico/Los Angeles Times debate was the first Democratic showdown in which the two leading candidates had a clear field to face each other after third-running John Edwards formally dropped out of the race early Wednesday.
Thursday's debate comes against the backdrop of a tightening Democratic nomination race not only in California but nationwide in which some polls shows Clinton leading Obama by a razor-thin four points, compared to a gap of 20 or more just a month ago. And it's still not clear in which camp former supporters of John Edwards will land. It's not only delegate-rich California up for grabs next Tuesday in what is a virtual national primary, but more than 20 other states coast-to-coast.
Obama came into the debate with a certain amount of momentum having won last week's South Carolina primary by a crushing 2 to 1 margin over Hillary Clinton and having reported a record breaking $32 million fund-raising take during the past month of January - as much as previous records set during a three month period.
Obama's take gives him more than enough money to buy national TV advertising through the Super Tuesday of February 5th and beyond if necessary. Hillary Clinton's campaign says it will disclose its latest fund-raising figures sometime Friday.
The powerful 150,000-member California health care division of the Service Employees International Union endorsed Obama just hours before the debate, providing him one more boost in his quest to wrestle the Golden State out of Clinton's camp.
The debate took place in an animated circus-like atmosphere as chanting partisan crowds gathered hours in advance around the Kodak Theater on legendary Hollywood Boulevard. Opposing groups of Clinton and Obama supporters waved signs and posters and strained to chant each other down. By the time doors closed for the debate, ticket-holders were scalping their seats for $1000 a pair.
Both candidates and their surrogates - from Ted Kennedy in the Obama camp and Bill Clinton for his wife--plan to campaign heavily in California in the next few days. Obama kicked off his final offensive early Thursday morning with an upbeat town hall aimed at wooing Latinos at an inner city Los Angeles junior college.
During that rally, Obama strenuously avoided criticizing his opponent by name but instead said voters face a "stark" choice between the past and the future." I look out at you and the future is what I see," he told the racially diverse college-aged crowd.
Now just five days short of the dramatic February Tsunami Tuesday, a growing number of political analysts and campaign professionals are predicting that the Democratic nomination may be far from settled when the votes are totaled next week. "I'd look to see real fireworks down the road, most probably in the March 4th Ohio primary," said a veteran Democratic consultant who is working for neither Obama nor Clinton. "Obama may be very well making his stand there," he said.
Other analysts have raised questions about Obama's strategy of doing numerous campaign events in smaller states like Idaho, New Mexico and Missouri over the next handful of days. They argue that Obama would be better served by concentrating his resources in California.
Both candidates are holding post-debate fundraisers Thursday night. Hillary Clinton supporters have been cited to the posh Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. Obama's camp will be at the trendy Avalon nightclub in Hollywood.