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Democratic Debate: It's All Over

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Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton found far more areas of agreement than disagreement in tonight's Democratic presidential debate in Austin, Texas, and even when the two did clash it was largely on polite terms.

With just 12 days remaining before the crucial Ohio-Texas Two-Step on March 4, neither Clinton nor Obama seemed willing to take the big swing that, if it landed, could deliver a knock-out blow and, if it missed, could leave one or the other flailing wildly.

Clinton was slightly more aggressive throughout -- as befits her newly acquired underdog status in the race -- but seemed to find it difficult to deliver a resounding blow against Obama.

Her best attempt came during a somewhat heated exchange over whether Obama had plagiarized lines from speeches delivered by Gov. Deval Patrick (Mass.).

Mocking Obama's campaign slogan, Clinton deadpanned: "That's not change you can believe in, that's change you can Xerox."

The assembled crowd sat in stunned silence before a smattering of boos (and even an occasional hiss) broke out. Maybe the line will work better when it is replayed (as it will be endlessly) on television shows tonight and tomorrow. But, in the room it appeared to fall flat and that gave Obama a chance to hammer home the idea that he is the candidate promising a change in how politics is conducted.

While the debate was largely a vanilla affair, each candidate had his or her moments.

For Obama, that moment came in response to the idea he alleged Clinton was promulgating that those who have supported him are somehow "delusional."

"I think they perceive reality of what is going on in Washington very clearly," said Obama, returning to a core message of his campaign that politics in the nation's capital is broken and he is the one to fix it. "What they see is that if we don't bring the country together, stop the endless bickering, actually focus on solutions and reduce the special interests that have dominated Washington, then we will not get anything done," Obama added to roars of approval from the audience.

For Clinton, her strongest moment came in the debate close when moderator Campbell Brown asked each of he candidates to reflect on a specific moment in which they had been tested.

"Well, I think everybody here knows I've lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life," said Clinton in a not-so-subtle reference to the very public difficulties in her marriage and her time with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in the White House. (It's worth noting that tonight was one of the first times Clinton has referred to those trying times in the context of this campaign.)

She went on to deliver an eloquent answer about the challenges every-day American face and how her own challenges pale in comparison. "I resolved at a very young age that I'd been blessed and that I was called by my faith and by my upbringing to do what I could to give others the same opportunities and blessings that I took for granted," Clinton said.

(Her campaign staff was so thrilled with that closing that communications director Howard Wolfson put out a statement moments after the debate ended that proclaimed it as "the moment she retook the reins of this race and showed women and men why she is the best choice." Time will tell.)

Tonight's debate was the first of two such gatherings before the critical Ohio-Texas primaries on March 4. Clinton's campaign has all-but-admitted that she must win both contests in order to remain a viable contender in the race and has pushed repeatedly for more debates between the two candidates -- convinced that head-to-head matchups benefit the former first lady.

Perhaps, but in tonight's debate politeness won out. Both candidates circled one another -- occasionally jabbing but generally comfortable to avoid throwing any haymakers. Obama seemed to hold the advantage in talking about his opposition to the war in Iraq, while Clinton seemed to hold the upper hand in debating their respective health care programs. If you went into the debate as a supporter of Obama, you likely left it the same way. Ditto for Clinton.

Will tonight's debate change anything in the race? Sound off in the comments section below.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 21, 2008; 10:27 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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