Who Won Tonight's Debate? The Answer Is Clear

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

Click here to read reactions to the first presidential debate between Obama and McCain from HuffPost bloggers, including Nora Ephron, Bob Shrum, Madeleine Albright, Paul Reiser, Arianna Huffington, Sean Penn, and more.

The following is RJ Eskow's piece reacting to the Democratic Primary debate in Austin, Texas, last February:

For the first time in quite a while we saw a clear winner emerge from one of the many Democratic presidential debates. That winner? The Democratic Party. Finally after a dark and long winter came a glimmer of light, a possibility that this party could emerge from its bitter primary season united and uplifted. And the person who deserves the most thanks for that glimmer of possibility is Hillary Clinton.

Not that she got there by the most direct route possible. Before ending on a grace note, Sen. Clinton tried a few pre-rehearsed cheap shots. But it seemed apparent from the start tonight that she was determined, first and foremost, to tone down the harsh rhetoric. That impression was borne out by a post-debate anecdote from panel member John King, who said that she approached Obama before the debate to engage him in some friendly casual conversation.

For most of the debate it seemed as if two Senator Clintons were taking turns on the stage. One, the statesmanlike leader, wanted to rise above petty divisions. The other, the one who thinks that going negative is "the fun part," wanted to keep taking shots. But the night's only boos (that I heard) came when she overplayed her weak "plagiarism" hand and delivered an obviously pre-scripted line about "change you can xerox."

It was like watching behavior modification take place in real-time. She was punished for going negative and rewarded for being uplifting, and you could watch her moving toward the light as the night wore on. As a result, when the debate ended she had the best moment of her entire campaign. That's when she said she was "honored" to be sharing the debate stage with Sen. Obama and spoke about her own motivation for public service, illustrating her remarks with an anecdote about wounded soldiers.

(I'll leave it to the snarky CNN post-debate analysts to point out that she appropriated a line without attribution herself, from Sen. John Edwards -- the notion that "we (the candidates) will be fine, whatever happens.")

Sen. Clinton's only hope for survival lies in sticking with this positive and unifying tone, but even then it will take some extraordinary luck. For, while she had a fine moment at the end, the debate as a whole was a draw. She needed a clear win to change the momentum. And Sen. Obama accomplished something extremely important tonight, too: He presented himself as a convincing president and commander-in-chief. That was the last thing he needed to do to 'close the deal' with a number of voters, and he succeeded.

Still, if Clinton manages to pull off a miracle this will be the moment when it began. And if she doesn't, which is more likely, this will be the moment when she telegraphed the fact that she's not willing to tear the party apart in pursuit of her own ambitions.

Some observers thought she was making a valedictory statement, gracefully acknowledging the inevitability of her own defeat. I think it was more nuanced than that. I think she still hopes for a win, but accepts the possibility of loss and wanted to address either eventuality with more grace and poise.

It made me wonder how her campaign might have gone had she not been given (and accepted) so much bad advice. There were reports this week that Mark Penn wanted her to go even more negative than she has so far. That approach would have been catastrophic tonight. And it made me think of Bill Clinton's advice to John Kerry in 2004, that he come out in favor of those anti-gay state amendments in order to undercut the right. I wonder how many of her greatest mistakes, including her 2002 war vote and her subsequent refusal to acknowledge it was a mistake, came from men like Penn and her husband.

I also wonder how many of her highly counterproductive "street fighter" moves came from Bill or Penn. Those moves have allowed Obama to undercut her with deft jujitsu over and over, as he did tonight, by painting them (and her) as "the old way of doing politics." She's a far stronger candidate when she taps the idealism theme herself instead of belittling it, and when she drops the pre-scripted attack lines to speak about her own dreams and motivations.

(And I felt strongly she should do that as far back as two months ago - even before she opened up emotionally in New Hampshire, which saved her candidacy then.)

But that was the campaign that might have been, not the campaign that was. And when you're running for president of the United States, you're the one who has to take responsibility for any advice you choose to follow.

Can she still turn this race around at this late date and win? It's possible, but it's certainly still a long shot. Either way, by the end of the night she rose above her worst instincts (and/or her some bad advice) to comport herself with class and dignity. In doing that, she did her party -- and herself -- a genuine service.