Dem Debate Reveals Shifting Battlefield

01/06/2008 01:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Change and experience have long been the buzz words of the Democratic race, and they have often felt like frustratingly empty talking points. But as the candidates engaged today in their most fiery confrontation yet, they outlined their fundamentally different view of change much more clearly than ever before.

Hillary Clinton appeared to recognize today that she had to engage Barack Obama on his own turf. The results of the Iowa caucuses left her no alternative but defend her own potential to bring about change in this country, and she knew that it was no longer enough for her to pass a certain threshold by simply claiming to be a Democrat. And while reminding voters that she would be the first female president can go part of the way, she has tried that before as well.

Twice tonight, Hillary Clinton explained why she and not her rivals is the change candidate. And which of these two moments voters remember could very well determine whether Clinton can catch up Obama by Tuesday's primary.

In the first half of the night, she was on the defensive. She is no longer the front-runner, and she could be days away from going 0-2 and seeing her presidential ambitions fade away. While she had spent much of 2007 trying to stay above the fray, she was the one who had to attack tonight and she did so right at the start by seeking to draw attention to Obama's flip-flops and inconsistencies, especially on health care. "Senator Obama could have a debate with himself," she charged in a surprisingly quick frontal assault. But as soon as John Edwards chose to rush to Obama's defense, Clinton's attempt to draw the Illinois Senator into a fight was immediately defeated. Edwards had clearly picked whose side he was on for the night, as he portrayed the race as the fight between the ticket of change represented by Obama and himself on the one hand and the corporate establishment on the other.

Stung by John Edwards labeling her a force of the status-quo, Hillary Clinton jumped back in. Holding her hand in the air, she raised her voice. "Making change is not about what you believe, it's not about a speech you make. It's about working hard," she answered before listing concrete ways in which she had brought about change in the past thirty-five years. Betraying her frustration, Clinton was venting. And that one moment underscored just how much has changed in the Democratic race since the last debate in mid-December.

In the debate's second half, the dynamics had changed. Clearly taken aback by Edwards's transparent choice to protect Obama, Clinton was watching passively as her two rivals were patting each other on the back for bringing about change in Washington. Even as the moderator was mocking the lobbying reforms that were passed this year as simply forbidding lawmakers to eat lobbyist-offered food while sited, rather than while standing, Edwards and Obama were explaining how each had taken steps to ensure the ways of Washington were changed.

Clinton chose this moment to jump in and demand a "reality check." And she set up the clearest dichotomy between the two front-runners we heard all night. "Words are not action," Clinton explained. "As beautifully present and passionately felt, they are not action. What we need to do is to translate thought into action and feeling into reality." And in her typical argument she continued, "Change is hard but change is possible if you push hard."

Obama had a ready response, as his defense of the politics of hope is as much a part of his standard stump speech than the "working hard" pledge is of Clinton's. "Words do inspire," professed Obama. "Words do help people get involved. Don't' discount that power. When the American people are determined that something is going to happen, it's going to happen."

Yet, helped by the moderator who gave her a lot of time to develop her response and come back to it by asking her a couple of follow-ups, Hillary Clinton managed to finally put her full argument out there as to why she would be a more efficient agent of change than Barack Obama and John Edwards. And in doing so, she displayed a sense of the challenge facing her that she appeared to lack in previous weeks.

But what will voters remember in the coming days? The night's first half in which Clinton went all-out against Obama in a manner of minutes and ended up raising her voice once Edwards rushed to Barack's rescue? Or the second in which she found her groove and made her case for change more coherently than she had even tried to ever before?

Clinton was not helped by Barack Obama's near-flawless performance. A front-runner does not have to go for defining moments or launch counter-attacks, and Obama's choice to avoid answering Clinton's accusations of flip-flopping was a reminder of the striking reversal of roles that has occurred this week. As Clinton was listing the areas in which the Illinois Senator had changed positions, Obama repeatedly answered that airing policy disagreements was a perfectly reasonable thing to do at this stage of the debate before chastising Hillary for going a bit too far.

Obama's one stumble was the strange dig he took at Clinton after the moderator explained that the latest CNN/WMUR poll found that voters did not find likable, Hillary drew audience laughter by declaring "Well, that hurts my feelings. But I'll try to go on." And after she added that Obama was certainly very likable but she did not think she was that bad, Obama jumped in, "You're likable enough, Hillary."

Obama also got a boost by the moderator's choice to frame the national security discussion by first asking him whether he stood by his summer speech in which he announced his plan to invade Pakistan even without the Pakistani government's authorization if that is needed to find the terrorists. There had been much talk in the past few days that the main area on which the Clinton campaign would go after Obama would be his weakness on national security; but how could Hillary have done that tonight when the moderator was implying that Obama's plan resembled Bush's doctrine of preemption. In the first twenty minutes, Obama got to explain why he was no neoconservative when it came to foreign policy while displaying his strength on national security. A pretty good deal to start off the debate.

And in the tense exchanges between the three main contenders, Bill Richardson stood out. The candidate that is nowhere near the top but that found himself on stage alone with the top-tier, Richardson is usually accompanied at such events by others struggling for attention like Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich. But he had the spotlight all to himself tonight, and he used it near perfectly. As the other speakers sparred on who best embodied change, Richardson repeatedly broke up the tension by seeking to raise himself above the fray. "I've been in hostage negotiations that are a lot more civil than this," he exclaimed at one point.

Richardson did not need to defend himself, as no one took the time to attack him. He had ample time to present his own positions on issues and highlight his long resume and the advantages of being governor. Is experience now a leper, Richardson asked?

A few weeks ago, such a moment would have been interpreted as Richardson rushing to Clinton's defense by highlighting one of her strong points and vying to be picked as her vice-president. But this time, Hillary Clinton could not even count on the reassuring thought of having an ally on stage. For one, the New Mexico Governor allied himself with Obama in Iowa on Thursday, which has made the Clintons livid and has probably removed him from VP consideration if Hillary becomes the nominee. And more importantly, Richardson went on to emphasize executive experience, which he was the only candidate on stage to possess. Boosted by his position in the final four, even Richardson was going at it solo.

The state of the race had truly changed since the last debate.

This analysis is cross-posted on the author's blog, at Campaign Diaries.