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MSNBC Sets Up Clinton Target In Last Night's Debate

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The following piece was published by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.

It's good to be Queen. Except when it's not.

Democrats are different from Republicans. That means their debates are different, too. Well, for the most part. Just like in the GOP debates, Hillary Clinton was the star--or perhaps target.

The MSNBC debate on Tuesday night took place at Drexel University in Philadelphia, a location that was brought up often, as in "birthplace of freedom...birthplace of democracy...birthplace of giving people the power..." Since Pennsylvania isn't an important early primary state, this is probably the last time the Democratic candidates will express so much enthusiasm for any city in the state, so enjoy it while you can Philadelphians.

The difference between the two parties' debates is most noticeable in the topics and the amount of time spent on them. Iran was mentioned in several of the GOP debates, but in the Democratic debate tonight, not only was it the first topic up for discussion, but it took up a half hour. Education got much more play than it ever did in any of the GOP debates. There was blame on big business for the drop in students' studying medicine, for the inability to get shipping containers inspected, for problems with Social Security, and for hedge funds not taking their share of the tax burden. Needless to say, the Republicans felt differently about business. Conversely, there was no talk in this debate about strengthening the family, the 2nd amendment, building fences along borders, or a flat tax.

Those were some of the differences, but that brings us back to the common theme: get Hillary.

It was no surprise that the other candidates came into the debate aiming hard at the front-running senator. But they didn't have to work hard at this, because MSNBC set up Clinton as a target. Questions were directed at her first, and then other candidates were asked what they thought about her answer. Candidates were given statements made by Clinton and asked to comment on them, discuss whether they agreed or disagreed, and whether they felt she was being consistent. And they all cheerfully complied; she's far ahead of the others in the polls, so her competitors best chance is to try to get her to make a mistake.

Mrs. Clinton didn't blow up or fall apart or say something like, "I think Iraq is going rather well," but she did make it easy for her opponents to make their point about her being a mind-changer and an overly cautious candidate who shifts positions with the political wind. She parsed sentences and statements with excessive fineness in a most lawyerly way, and tried her best to say nothing about difficult topics. She was elusive whenever possible. Her answer to a question on New York governor's controversial plan to allow illegal immigrants to get drivers' licenses was so convoluted and simultaneously careful and vague that John Edwards said he thought she had changed positions several times in two minutes or less. And no matter how many times the commentators quizzed her on this, she couldn't quite be nailed down (the final verdict seemed to be something along the lines of she didn't really approve of the idea but understood why Spitzer was doing it. I don't really approve of dangling prepositions, but I understand why people let them go in their writing).

But even in the similarity in their choice of target, there was a difference in the Republicans and Democrats reproach, and this was something as simple as a name. The Republicans constantly refer to her as Hillary, usually said in a tone that turns the word into a pejorative or a threat. The Democrats all referred to her as Senator Clinton or the Senator. Yet they all--including Hillary Clinton--called everyone else onstage by their first names: Joe, Chris, John, Barack. What does this say about these candidates and their feelings about Mrs. Clinton? Does it indicate any kind of respect for her? Was it a conscious move to sound different than the Republicans? It could mean nothing at all. Then again, they may be developing their own brand of scorn: Bill Richardson pointed out that no senator has been elected president since John F. Kennedy. Being a governor has been the fashionable ticket to electability (though likely not for Mr. Richarson. Sorry, governor!). Maybe "senator" is the new "Hillary."

The Democrats onstage tonight generally didn't try to charm viewers or make them laugh (or if they were they soundly failed). But the entertainer of the evening award undoubtedly went to, of all people, Joe Biden. Senator (oops, that word!) was one of the few candidates to even mention their GOP counterparts (Obama took a few tentative shots at Romney), most specifically Rudy Giuliani, who he called the least qualified person to run for president since George W. Bush. He described Rudy's campaigning style: "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence--a noun, a verb, and '9/11.'" This deservedly got the biggest laugh of the night.

Who won? It's hard to say and it probably doesn't matter. But maybe there was an unexpected winner, at least in the publicity stakes.

For the post-debate interviews, MSNBC moved Chris Matthews and his guests to an outdoor location. A crowd lined the fence behind him, watching and waving signs. And nearly every one of those signs was for Ron Paul. Gosh darn it, they really are everywhere, aren't they?