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Debate Reaction: Winners and Losers

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Barack Obama strolled across the Columbia Marriott this morning
looking relaxed in a black sweatsuit. Shaking hands with hotel workers
and walking over to a group of reporters, the man roundly panned by
political pundits last night looked as if he didn't have a care in the
world.

And why should he? Senator Obama survived his first presidential
debate, has over $30 million in the bank and still has the most
exciting campaign in America.

Let's face it, the guy wasn't JFK or Bobby last night. He wasn't even
Mario Cuomo. Instead, Barack Obama acted like a candidate who was a
state senator the last time a presidential debate was conducted.

I started running for Congress the first time a year and a half before
my election. The idea was to make my mistakes while nobody was
watching. It worked. Unfortunately for Obama, his every move is
dissected under a microscope and the stakes are so much higher than a
little congressional race. Still, if Barack Obama was going to have
an off night, better to do it on a warm spring evening in South
Carolina than on a cold Iowa night eight months from now.

I suspect there will be very little impact from last night's
lackluster performance. As I wrote yesterday, the candidates had so
little time to respond that breakout moments would be few and far
between.

Unfortunately for those who know and like him, John Edwards seemed to
be somewhere else last night. I kept hoping to see some of the
rhetorical flourish Senator Edwards wowed us with in 2004 but it never
came. Only after the debate did I really think about the burden his
wife's illness must be putting on his shoulders. That being said, last
night's performance will do little to help his campaign.

Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson are three of the most
likable candidates. Biden did especially well. But short of buying the
winning ticket in a powerball jackpot, these guys can do little to
survive next year's front-loaded primary process.

Dennis Kucinich proved that he belonged on stage last night. While he
may only be sitting at 2%, no candidate speaks for Democratic
activists on the issue that matters more than Kucinich. He also
provided Barack Obama's finest moment, when Obama took the Cleveland
congressman to task for ruling out military options on Iran. It wasn't
what he said that mattered as much as how he said it. For the first
time, Obama seemed unscripted and on his toes.

And then, of course, there was the woman pundits declared the winner,
Hillary Clinton.

Last night we saw a woman who endured twelve tough years as the
progressive wife of a Southern governor, eight brutal years as a
powerful first lady and six years as United States Senator. She was
the most experienced candidate by far and last night it showed.

You could tell this debate was not a great challenge for Hillary Clinton.

Going on 60 Minutes to explain how your husband deserved to be
President even though he seemed to delight in publicly humiliating you
is a challenge. Standing by that same husband seven years later after
being humiliating in the most horrific of ways is a challenge. Dealing
with the Marc Rich scandal while trying to set up your office in the
US Senate is a challenge. But Hillary talking policy with seven less
experienced politicians is nothing but a walk in the park.

So what was the net result of last night's debate? Not much.

Hillary's stock went up a bit and John Edwards' dropped. But the most
important development may be that all those Washington pundits
comparing Barack Obama to Bobby Kennedy and Jesus Christ will lower
their expectations and start judging Obama for who he is: an
incredibly gifted writer and orator who arrived in the US Senate two
years ago.

The biggest beneficiary of those lowered expectations will be none
other than Barack Obama himself.

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