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Democratic Debate Preview: The Final Face-off?

After 19 debates spanning the better part of the last year, tonight's one on one between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton could be the last time the two appear on stage together for some time.

The debate -- set on the campus of Cleveland State University and sponsored by MSNBC -- comes at a critical juncture in the Democratic presidential race. Not only is it occurring one week before the Ohio and Texas primaries, it also comes amid widespread questions regarding the shakiness of Clinton's position in the race and what she will do if she loses one (or both contests) next Tuesday.

Let's set the scene before going into what we expect out of tonight's debate.

Over the last 24 hours, the Clinton campaign has received double-barreled bad news in the form of two new polls -- one by Gallup, the other by CBS and the New York Times -- that show her trailing Obama by double digits nationally.

In the CBS/NYT poll, Obama leads with 54 percent to just 38 percent for Clinton, while in the Gallup survey Obama has a slightly slimmer 51 percent to 39 percent lead.

The extent to which the two candidates have traded places over recent months was striking in both surveys. As recently as Jan. 13, Gallup had Clinton ahead of Obama nationally by a 45 percent to 33 percent margin, with John Edwards taking 13 percent. (It's worth noting, by way of context, that the survey went into the field two days after Clinton's come-from-behind win in the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary.)

Even as recently as Feb. 2, however, Gallup found a statistical dead heat -- Clinton at 45 percent and Obama at 44 percent. Three weeks later, everything, it seems, has changed.

Look a little but further inside the Gallup poll and you start to understand why.

Asked which candidate did they think would be the Democratic nominee, a whopping 70 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners chose Obama, while just 23 percent of that group named Clinton. Republican and Republican leaners were even more resolute about Obama's chances at the nomination, with 82 percent naming him and just 14 percent choosing Clinton.

Those numbers provide a startling contrast from a survey done by Gallup Jan. 4-6 in which 41 percent of Democrats named Obama as the likely nominee and 36 percent chose Clinton; Republicans opted for Obama 53 percent to 23 percent. (Again, context is important. The Gallup poll was in the field in the days following Obama's sweeping victory in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.)

As we have said and written throughout this contest, voters like to be with a winner, and the cavalcade of support that has gone to Obama over the past three weeks is yet another sign of this phenomenon. By winning ten consecutive victories in the primaries and caucuses between Feb. 6 and today, Obama for the first started to look like the inevitable winner. And the more Obama looks like he is going to be the nominee, the more people everywhere start to believe it -- a self fulfilling prophecy cycle.

Putting the polling aside, the landscape doesn't look much better for Clinton, as her campaign seems to be struggling to stay on message of late. Take yesterday as an example: Clinton gave a major foreign policy address in Washington in which she highlighted her deep background while drawing an implicit contrast with Obama's relative dearth of experience on the issue.

But the publication of a photo of Obama dressed in traditional Somali clothing on the Drudge Report -- and accusations over whether or not it was being circulated by the Clinton campaign -- dominated the day's news coverage.

Whether or not you think the Clinton campaign was behind the leak -- and they deny they were -- the practical effect of the story was that a day-long news cycle was wasted. The speech, which should have been the news driver of the day, was overshadowed by the flap over the photo.

Clinton must find a way to change the dynamic of this race and fast. Given that need, expect her to be the aggressor tonight -- seeking to portray Obama as someone who says one thing but does the other. Specifically, Clinton will attack Obama's image as a reformer, charging that his campaign is making misleading claims about her trade record and is failing to denounce the influence of outside groups working on his campaign's behalf. Clinton, however, has yet to crack the code on how best to attack Obama without having it rebound negatively on her.

Obama is well aware that he is in the catbird's seat entering tonight's debate. Given his strong performance in last week's debate in Austin, it seems as though Obama has nicely settled into the role of frontrunner.

The one potential danger for Obama is that he allows his status as the frontrunner go to his head.

In last week's debate, Obama was nearly pitch-perfect, but he hit one discordant note when, defending himself from charges of plagiarism, he said this: "So what I've been talking about, in [these] speeches -- and I've got to admit, some of them are pretty good." The line drew a laugh but also suggested that Obama had become -- at least monetarily -- a little too full of his speech-making abilities.

Voters like a confident president; they don't like cocky. Obama needs to make sure that he doesn't get too comfortable on stage tonight as it could lead to him dropping his guard right as Clinton takes a big swing.

One final note about tonight: The memorable moments in these debates are not usually produced by pre-prepared one-liners (Clinton's "change you can Xerox" clunker being the most recent example) but rather by off-the-cuff exchanges or unrehearsed statements that convey real emotion and conviction. Those unpredictable moments are what we will be watching for tonight.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 26, 2008; 6:22 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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