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A Few More Thoughts on Tonight's Debate

We're not liveblogging this debate -- in hopes of being able to watch the candidates closely and provide some analysis later -- but as the proceedings continue I thought I would offer a few thoughts to ponder over the final 30 minutes.

* John Edwards is the real wild card tonight. In past debates, he has generally sided with Obama over Clinton -- choosing to cast himself and the Illinois senator as change agents and painting the New York senator as part of the status quo. But so far tonight, Edwards has been a thorn in Obama's side. He called out Obama over his support for an amendment to the bankruptcy bill, challenged the logic behind Obama's "present" votes in the Illinois Senate, and criticized Obama for not proposing a health care plan that offers universal coverage. Edwards is struggling to stay relevant in tonight's debate -- and the race more broadly -- but tonight he is helping to steer the discussion and serving as the arbiter of whether Obama or Clinton wins rhetorical points.

* The first hour of the debate was largely fought on points -- the economy and health care -- that are in Clinton's wheelhouse. While talk has now turned to the war in Iraq (much less friendly territory for Clinton), the focus on domestic issues that she is clearly comfortable with and well versed in addressing is a nice development for Clinton's campaign.

* Clinton is playing less to the room, which sounds, at least on TV, like a pro-Obama group, and far more to the national audience. If you look at Clinton's schedule for the next week, after tonight's debate she won't touch down in South Carolina again until Thursday -- a sign that she is literally and figuratively trying to push the emphasis of the campaign to Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. While several of Clinton's lines have been met with boos or catcalls by people in the room, she is ensuring that people watching tonight's debate outside of South Carolina (or reading coverage about it in the newspapers tomorrow) will be sure to know about Antoin Rezko and Obama's present votes in the Illinois Senate. We saw this tactic first emerge in New Hampshire where Clinton attacked Obama over the fact that his campaign chair in the state was a lobbyist. It might not have played all that well in the room, but it ensured Jim Demers name was part of the political discussion the following day.

* Obama isn't the best debater on the stage (we still think that person is Edwards), but tonight's performance shows how much he has improved. Under fire from both Clinton and Edwards, Obama has generally kept his cool, tried to answer the criticisms point by point and pivoted to his change message. That message is what won Obama Iowa and what really resounds with Democratic primary voters who have said time and again that a candidate's ability to bring about change is central to deciding how they will vote.

* The Fix inbox has been deluged by reactions from political operatives -- most of them neutral -- about the bar brawl that the first hour and 15 minutes of the debate turned into. Opinions vary wildly: Clinton is shrill and too aggressive; Obama is flustered; Edwards is nonexistent. Or the exact opposite is true. Debates like this one seem to spawn conventional wisdom that ranges all over the political yard. To be frank, we may not know the true impact of the debate for days or even weeks. In the early days of the campaign, debates had the capability to drive discussion in the campaign for a week or even a month (witness Clinton's illegal immigrants flub in Philadelphia and the downslide that followed). But in a campaign already in fifth gear, it's hard for even the most combative debate (and this one certainly qualifies) to drive more than a single news cycle or two.

We'll be back with a wrap-up after the debate ends. And, PLEASE do not send The Fix any updates about tonight's Georgetown-Syracuse game. It is being Tivoed as we speak. The sacrifices I make for this blog... Go Hoyas!

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By Chris Cillizza  |  January 21, 2008; 9:32 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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