Has a presidential primary debate ever been so highly anticipated? I doubt it. Faced with the opportunities of six boys getting up on stage and piling on Senator Hillary Clinton, we in the press have been bubbling over with glee. With the former First Lady standing between her top two campaign trail rivals, Senator Barack Obama and ex-Senator John Edwards, pundits and reporters have been slating the debate as a real opportunity for memorable quotes and furious exchanges. Finally, the dead tree, television, and online media outlets agreed, we'd be off the sparring mats and into the ring, wearing mouth guards or not.
But this pile on was pretty light. Sure, Biden, Dodd, Kucinich, and Richardson were there, but dissing Mrs. Clinton couldn't really be their bag - while you may want to be in the pole position, getting out of the pit stop is where you need to turn your attention first. Senator Biden said it himself, "I'm not running against Hillary Clinton," before getting in the best dig of the night against Rudy Giuliani's overuse of 9/11 as his personal legacy.
And given how much the debate turned into successive exchanges between Clinton, Edwards, and Obama, you might almost think the debate was really an extended episode of the Three Stooges.
And like the Three Stooges...well, it was always the senior Moe who came in for the least abuse in those movies. Senator Clinton did an able job of showing how stiff her spine can be when posed with opposition coming from all sides, whether it's Larry and Curly or Edwards and Obama. While a few sprays of seltzer may have connected, it's not clear that she took any pies in the face.
Just look at Senator Obama getting locked up with Clinton on what to do about Social Security. Sure, he called her out for not being "truthful" about what needs to be done on the issue. But it didn't have the full force that an exchange in one of these debates needs - it just sounded like a rational debate over an important policy issue, and that's something that New York's Senator is eager to take on.
But that seltzer can soak you, and the Senator's stage partners sure gave it a good try. Here's five swipes at Clinton that made something of a splash.
1. It was all about Iran, and it will continue to be.
If political reporting needs good guys and bad guys, 2008's mustachioed menace will be Iran. Rep. Dennis Kucinich stood up and said, "hey, mainstream media, don't frame Iran this way." And like a democracy protester at Tiananmen Square, the the NBC News juggernaut charged right over him.
Edwards brought up Iran first, and when Clinton tried to rebut his wave of argumentation, she ran right away from it and towards all the sweet things she's been doing for America's children all these years.
But Tim Russert brought her back around. And after explaining her stance, Edwards zeroed in like a bunker buster on the Senator's vote in favor of declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization.
"[She] says she wants to maximize pressure on the Bush administration, so the way to do that is to vote yes on a resolution that looks like it was written literally by the neo-cons?" Edwards declared. "She literally gave Bush and Cheney exactly what they wanted."
2. Obama makes rain over Senator Clinton and government secrecy.
Russert tried tripping up Senator Clinton over the cloistering of various documents from her husband's White House until 2012. While the senator said she believed everything was normal in the National Archives, Senator Obama focused the discussion back on the specter of Vice President Dick Cheney and the giant safe full of secrets in his office.
Perhaps it won't be the biggest vote getter, but it was well put, and showed one senator seizing on an opportunity effectively.
"This is an example of not turning the page," the freshman Illinois Senator said, before bringing up the work he's done on ethics reform in the Senate. "We have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in history. Part of what we have to do is to invite the American people back to participate in their government again. That means being open and accountable and transparent to the American people."
3. You're not electable, says Barack Obama.
The Senator followed up his dig at Clinton's supposed secrecy by saying that the Republicans were ready to run against her. He said it out loud and directly, showing us how the audacity of hope could get turned into sheer audacity.
"That's a fight they're very comfortable having, it is a fight we have been having since the 90s," Obama declared before saying that there was a need to "break the gridlock."
He added, "What we don't need is another eight years of bickering."
4. Edwards tip toes toward tagging Clinton as a Wal-Mart shopper.
Someone in Edwards' camp slapped themselves in the forehead when this came up. Senator Clinton served as a Wal-Mart board member during her Arkansas years, and has called the big box retailer one of America's mixed blessings.
Edwards tied in Wal-Mart to threatening our national security. He said that plans to prevent terrorist attacks by scanning more cargo coming into the nation's ports had been defeated. And the culprit?
"Who lobbied against it? Wal-Mart," the North Carolina Democrat asked and answered.
He only left out one thing - Clinton's connections to the company. But you could read the subtext if you were listening closely enough, and Edwards might be hoping that Iowa Caucus-goers living off of hollowed out mainstreams knew what he meant.
5. Obama and Edwards agree that Hillary Clinton is a pod person.
No, just kidding. But seriously, the turn from illegal aliens to space aliens with Dennis Kucinich admitting he *did* see a UFO at Shirley McClain's house was a lot of fun, and Obama's declaration that he'd go out for Halloween with his kids dressed as Mitt Romney was a good bit of humor, too.
While the Republican candidates frequently sound like eight or nine barbarians trying to tell the village which of them is the most like Genghis Khan, it was great to see at the end of the debate that the Democratic candidates could hack away at each other and still come out of it having a good time.