Debating the minutia of their policy differences on immigration, the Iraq War, health care, the mortgage crisis and the economy, character and inspiration versus experience, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama dueled for the last time before next Tuesday's so-called national primary that could decide the Democratic presidential nominee.
While there were no major slap downs, Obama won tonight's debate against Hillary Clinton, because he finally found his voice by undercutting her claim to "be ready on day one" by saying "you have to be right on day one," reminding anti-war Dems, Independents, and Republicans that his judgment was correct on the Iraq War and in the most important vote in her life, Senator Clinton pulled the wrong lever.
Throughout the debate, Obama showed his easy humor, genuine likeability, and moved back to his inspirational message of looking forward rather than backward. Ultimately, we vote for the candidate we like. Cha-ching!
Clinton refused to apologize for her vote to give President Bush the power to go to war in Iraq when questioned by CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer.
Her bobbing, weaving, and rambling answer to Blitzer's question on her war vote only threw her deeper into the woods with no trail out that will satisfy any voter against this war.
The truth is: there is no way her vote can be explained, except that it was politically expedient.
All the national polling supported the war at the time and in true Clintonian fashion, she took the plunge and that vote has been dogging her presidential campaign for the past year and giving fuel to Obama's claim that he has better judgment and his long-standing position against the war will make him a better candidate against the pro-war Republican candidate than Senator Clinton.
Not to worry.
Hillary Clinton scored her points sounding more like she running for Secretary of Health and Human Services rather than president by policy wonking in the extreme.
"If we had electronic medical records, according to RAND Corporation, hardly a bastion of liberal thinking, they have said we would save $77 billion a year."
Electronic medical records?
Hillary is passionate about 'em. She really was!
Drawing the finer points of distinction between her health care plan and Obama's was equally less-than-inspiring. Her plan requires everyone to purchase health care and Obama's plan focuses on lowering costs so that more Americans can afford to purchase health insurance.
I've covered presidential campaigns since - well, a long time - and rarely do most Americans vote for a president based on their policy positions and besides, the differences between Clinton and Obama's health care programs are fairly miniscule in the grand scheme of national policy parsing that some smarty young staffer will be writing when the time comes - if it comes.
Hillary Clinton sided with the politico.com questioner, Kim Millman from Burnsville, Minnesota, who said, "There's been no acknowledgement by any of the presidential candidates of the negative economic impact of immigration on the African- American community. How do you propose to address the high unemployment rates and the declining wages in the African-American community that are related to the flood of immigrant labor?"
Clinton said, "I believe that in many parts of our country, because of employers who exploit undocumented workers and drive down wages, there are job losses. And I think we should be honest about that." Ouch.
Refusing to demagogue the immigration issue, Obama said, "There's no doubt that we have to get control of our borders....But let's understand more broadly that the economic problems that African -Americans are experiencing, whites are experiences, blacks and Latinos are experiencing in this country are all rooted in the fact that we have had an economy out of balance...We should not use immigration as a tactic to divide. Instead, we should pull the country together to get this economy on track."
Score one for Obama on honesty and transparency...do I hear a Billy Joel song comin' on?
"Honesty is hardly ever heard...but mostly, what I need from you."
Bill Clinton was nowhere to be seen tonight, which is just as well. The Billary tag team has been fraught with messy mash-ups for the last several weeks causing the Lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy (and her kids) to endorse Obama.
When asked if Senator Clinton could control her husband, she waffled and didn't answer the question, in true Clintonian fashion, which I've experienced while covering her numerous campaign events over the last nine months.
Hillary has a problem with honesty and transparency, which is exactly the reputation the first Clinton White House created through all their scandals; real and imagined.
The latest scandal in the New York Times accuses Bill Clinton of using his status as an ex-president to cozy up to a Kazakhstan dictator and undercut U.S. foreign policy to secure uranium mining concessions for a business partner - oh, and a $100 million dollar donor to his foundation. Yuck.
Don't you feel like taking a shower when you read that? I did.
Applauding, cheering, and even, booing the moderator, the Hollywood Bling Bling in attendance - Steven Spielberg, Jason Alexander, Diane Keaton, Stevie Wonder, and Rob Reiner, just to name a few the CNN cameras featured during their cutaways at the Kodak Theatre - caught a 90-minute campaign reality show featuring the remaining coffer-rich candidates vying for the Dem nomination and mostly, playing nice.
If they were expecting fireworks, they would have done better to watch Project Runway reruns to see who's in and who's out.
John Edwards is out but in the opening remarks by both Obama and Clinton, you'd think he was Knight Edwards.
Obama called Edwards, "a voice for this party and this country for many years to come" and Clinton acknowledged that John and Elizabeth Edwards set a personal example of courage and leadership. Yawn.
We all know that both are pandering to Edwards, hoping he will endorse them or maybe, not endorse either. Edwards' delegates can move to any candidate they like. They are not beholden to Edwards. His fundraisers? Who needs 'em?
Obama's team just raised $32 million in the month of January and Clinton's team is doing just fine, thank you very much. She's making $5 million dollar advertising buys in New York days before Super Tuesday.
Howard Meyerson of Pasadena, California from the politico.com website mentioned Mitt Romney's business expertise and the fact that neither Clinton nor Obama has ever run a business and asked both candidates why should either of you be elected to be CEO of the country?"
Clinton said, "I would, with all due respect, say that the United States government is much more than a business. It is a trust."
But it was Obama's answer that rocked the crowd, "Let me just also point out that, you know, Mitt Romney hasn't gotten a very good return on his investment during this presidential campaign."
Even though Hillary didn't answer the question, she had a great line when Karen Roper from Pickens, South Carolina, said, "You have claimed that your presidency would bring change to America. I'm 38 years old and I have never had an opportunity to vote in a presidential election in which a Bush or a Clinton wasn't on the ticket. How can you be an agent of change when we have had the same two families in the White House for the last 30 years?"
"It did take a Clinton to clean after the first Bush and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush." (Applause)
When Blitzer finally asked, "The more I speak to Democrats out there - not only the Democrats here at the Kodak Theatre, but all over the country - they take a look at the two of you and see potentially a dream ticket...Would you consider an Obama/Clinton or Clinton/Obama ticket going down the road?"
Obama: "Well, obviously, there's a big difference between those two." (Applause)
After saying 'nice' things about Senator Clinton, Obama deferred the answer for another day as did Hillary Clinton.
Both are in this fight until the last dog stops barking - when the cash runs out, when the delegates are saddled up in one camp or the other.
Obama took the stage with confidence and continued to remind this star-studded audience - and those of us watching this historic debate; the first time a woman and a black man made the final cut to become their party's presidential nominee - that he is the best person to take on John McCain in the general election, that he can bring the country together and has proven he can bring new and younger voters to enlarge and enrich the Democratic Party.
He is all about the future and she is all about the past.
At the end of this most civil of debates, Obama stood up, pulled out Hillary's chair like a gentleman, and for a brief moment, they chatted in one another's ear, smiled, laughed, and almost hugged.
Despite the warmth and civility of this debate, it's doubtful there will be a 'Dream Ticket' of Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton.
Tomorrow is another day and we can expect more jabs and punches before this contest is over.