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A Debate Devoid of Issues So Far

Roughly 45 minutes into the ABC debate, the proceedings have been heavy on process and incredibly light on policy.

Obama has taken the brunt of the questioning, being forced to answer for a laundry list of potential Republican attacks against him -- from comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the fact that he doesn't wear a flag pin on the campaign trail.

While Obama seemed to deftly handle questions about remarks he made to a group of San Francisco donors last weekend, he struggled quite a bit more when asked to answer for Wright, his former pastor.

Obama repeated that he was not in attendance at church when Wright made his most controversial remarks and didn't hear about them until it became an issue in the campaign. Obama appeared somewhat unsure when pressed by moderator George Stephanapoulos about whether Wright loved America as much as Obama did.

Obama's defense -- " I wasn't aware of all of these statements" -- made him sound like a run-of-the-mill politician rather than the change agent he has cast himself in the campaign.

On the flag pin question as well as a reference to his ties with a former member of the Weather Underground, Obama dismissed the issues as reflective of the old politics that served as a distraction that voters were not interested in.

"This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with," Obama said with a bit of anger (or at least frustration) in his voice. "There is no doubt that the Republicans will attack both of us. What I have displayed in the course of this primary is I can take a punch."

Clinton was all too happy to join in the fray, insisting that the questions being raised by the moderators were legitimate topics of debate for primary voters -- insisting that Republicans are certain to use these controversies against Obama in a general election campaign.

Clinton took a hit -- briefly -- for her exaggerations about coming under fire during a visit to Bosnia. "On a couple of occasions in the last weeks, I just said some things that I knew not to be the case," she said. "I am embarrassed by it, I have apologized for it."

If you are in Obama's campaign, it's hard to see how you can be happy about the first 45 minutes of the debate. He may be getting more speaking time than Clinton but he is being forced to answer for every vaguely hot-button issue raised about him over the last 15 months of the campaign.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 16, 2008; 9:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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