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Democratic Debate Preview: Lights Out In L.A.?

After a year of campaigning, tonight's Democratic debate in California finally offers the sort of a mano a mano -- eh, mano a womano -- confrontation that many within the party have been craving.

Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) will be the only two people on the stage at the Kodak Theater for tonight's CNN/Politico/L.A. Times debate. And The Fix is braced to deliver a live, blow-by-blow account.

The last time the Democratic candidates gathered -- it was last Monday though it feels like a month ago -- Clinton and Obama repeatedly clashed over issues major and minor. That debate, just days before the South Carolina primary, marked the introduction of "corporate lawyer" and "slum lord" in the vernacular of the campaign.

Since that debate and Obama's larger-than-expected victory in the Palmetto State, Clinton, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have significantly dialed back the rhetoric against Obama.

The Illinois senator has not responded in kind. In his now oft-quoted speech in Denver yesterday, he drew sharp contrasts with Clinton, bashing her for her support of the 2002 use-of-force resolution against Iraq, for "voting to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran" and "arguing for exceptions for torture before changing positions when the politics of the moment changed."

While Senator Clinton chose not to up the ante when asked about Obama's comments ("That certainly sounds audacious, but not hopeful," she said when informed of the speech), her campaign is seeking to use the speech to set expectations for the debate -- releasing a memo entitled "Which Barack Obama Will Show Up Tonight?"

In the missive, the campaign contrasts an August 2007 quote from Obama -- which detailed his emphasis on drawing substantive, not personal differences -- with quotes from recent days that, the Clinton team argues, do the exact opposite.

"In his speech, Sen. Obama -- not his campaign, not a surrogate, and not a spokesperson -- accused Hillary Clinton of 'changing positions when the moment changed' -- a charge that goes directly to character, not substance," reads the memo. "This was not an isolated incident. This was part of a broader, orchestrated effort by the Obama campaign to focus on character attacks."

The pre-emptive strike from the Clinton campaign signals what to expect from the New York senator in tonight's debate. Clinton, who knows she plays with fire when she goes on the attack against Obama, is likely to claim the moral high ground early on -- using Obama's words to prove that it is he, not she, who has taken the campaign down a negative road.

Obama, for his part, has generally performed well in recent debates when the spotlight has shown brightest on him and Clinton. But tonight all eyes will be on Obama to see how he does when there is no Edwards or Kucinich there to serve as a buffer. This is a high-wire act for both candidates. But, arguably, Obama has more on the line, as many voters will be looking to see how he fares against Clinton (and all she represents) one-on-one.

We've written in this space before that Obama is not the best debater among the Democratic field -- his natural tendency is to give a professorial explanation of an issue rather than trying to score a political point -- but over the last handful of these gatherings he has shown he is willing to mix it up with Clinton. Expect him to keep up that aggression tonight.

Obama is almost certain to once again portray the choice between him and Clinton as a choice between the past and the future, the old versus the new. Obama's great strength is his ability to convince voters that he represents the real possibility of changing business as usual in Washington. In his speech in Denver, which may well serve as a mantra for the remainder of the campaign, Obama promised "A politics that leaves behind the fights of the past so that we can finally take hold of our future."

Even though Obama may well have more riding on his performance tonight, he also comes into the debate on something of a roll. From his campaign's announcement that it had raised an absolutely eye-popping $32 million in January to a Gallup national tracking poll showing the Illinois senator within four points of Clinton, Obama will enter the Kodak Theater on the right foot tonight.

One final note on tonight: With the chaff now separated from the wheat in the Democratic field, there will be no downtime in tonight's debate -- no riff from Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) on why governors make better presidents, no appeal from former senator John Edwards for equal time, not even a pitch from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) about the incrementalism of his opponents. Just 90 minutes straight of debate; it's a different format than either of the candidates are used to and it will be interesting to see who adjusts more quickly and adroilty.

What are you expecting tonight? The comments section awaits.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 31, 2008; 5:30 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The McCain Impact on the Democrats
Next: Away We Go!


Sounds to me like Clinton IS upping the ante in re Obama's comments. she is riffing on the title of his book, "The Audacity of Hope."

"...... Senator Clinton chose not to up the ante when asked about Obama's comments ("That certainly sounds audacious, but not hopeful," she said....."

are the copy editors asleep already?

Posted by: kmanguchei | February 1, 2008 5:39 AM | Report abuse

Barak's wife won the debate he has a coretta

Posted by: rawdawgbuffalo | January 31, 2008 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Barak's wife won the debate he has a coretta

Posted by: rawdawgbuffalo | January 31, 2008 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Who won the CNN Democratic Debate in California?


Posted by: PollM | January 31, 2008 8:44 PM | Report abuse

rfpiktor: The Youtube link Posted by aamittal is proof enough for anyone, but there is much more in his own words, about the Iraq War vote.

Posted by: lylepink | January 31, 2008 8:15 PM | Report abuse

How heated will this get? No second-tier wannabe's to get in the way. Will there be extra security to separate them if needed?

Debate liveblog.

Posted by: parkerfl | January 31, 2008 8:08 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: fbutler1 | January 31, 2008 8:08 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: fbutler1 | January 31, 2008 8:08 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: fbutler1 | January 31, 2008 8:08 PM | Report abuse

The fact that the Corporate Media is trying to get this guy nominated speaks for itself!

Even Rupert Murdock endorses this guy!
Murdock owns the three biggest NEOCON slime machines in New York City: FOX NEWS, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, and THE NYPOST!

Posted by: harried | January 31, 2008 7:55 PM | Report abuse

I think the big player in tonight's debate is McCain. Will Obama bring up the fact that the straight-talking war hero can sink Hillary's "experience(d duplicity)" without even lifting a hand?

Posted by: maltzer | January 31, 2008 7:52 PM | Report abuse

Very strange, the picture on line, showing a, let's say, a non white, with big sign for Hillary.

The way this picture was taken can not be innocent.

Always the same old Wapo spin.

What a bull!...

Posted by: bekabo | January 31, 2008 7:51 PM | Report abuse

The fact that the Corporate Media is trying to get this guy nominated speaks for itself!

Posted by: harried | January 31, 2008 7:49 PM | Report abuse

This is a great opportunity for Obama to stand out. We will test his strength on: strategy, tactics, when to be on the offensive and defensive, how to differentiate himself as a better President than Hillary. He should ask Hillary whether Clinton is going to be a co-president, if so what is his role?If not he will be a loose cannon. Obama should ask Clinton to release records of her experience in white house. "Bill is not here" is not acceptable. He must corner her for a straight answer.He can be statesmanlike but like JFK must challenge Clinton. He should point out "the slum landlord" had given 15M to the DNC as stated by Penna State Governor on t.v.

Posted by: vpwaren | January 31, 2008 7:48 PM | Report abuse

I'm still waiting for either Dem front-runner to start bashing Bush. Tell the people which of Bush's blunders they will work to un-do first. Civil liberties (too hot topic?), war, DOJ, FEMA??
The one who starts decrying the Bush failures will appear above this petty bickering. Look your opponent in the eye and state that, "I'll be better than you when it comes to righting the direction the country has been on for the last seven years!"
That's the candidate I'll start listening too. The rest is political hot air.

Posted by: walter | January 31, 2008 7:48 PM | Report abuse

I am afraid Obama has managed to put on a teflon coat. I don't know if anything he says in the debate will tarnish him. I mean in the pre-Nevada debate he even conceded that his camp had pushed the race story. Still people, esoteric and common, equally believe it is all Bills fault. Watch yourself.

Posted by: aamittal | January 31, 2008 7:44 PM | Report abuse

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

Can we kill you?

Posted by: harried | January 31, 2008 7:43 PM | Report abuse

The Site Owner?????



Posted by: harried | January 31, 2008 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Lyle, as always, you are lawyering reality.

Posted by: rfpiktor | January 31, 2008 7:37 PM | Report abuse

I would hope Hillary has the good sense to bring up the FALSE statements Obama has made himself about the vote on the Iraq war. This is something Obama and his campaign have used since the beginning, and it is plain FALSE when you read the actual Bill that all this has been about.

Posted by: lylepink | January 31, 2008 7:30 PM | Report abuse

He'd better make sure he shakes her hand.

Posted by: LadyEagle | January 31, 2008 7:27 PM | Report abuse

He'd better make sure he shakes her hand.

Posted by: LadyEagle | January 31, 2008 7:26 PM | Report abuse

About the value of debates...
Many of us remember when Lloyd Bentsen pwn3d Quayle in the VP debates in 1988. But the election didn't exactly work out that way, despite the iconic one-liner.

Posted by: elroy1 | January 31, 2008 7:18 PM | Report abuse

This will really be an interesting debate, I hope it doesn't involve the two attacking each other for 2 hours though.

Check out my Obama supporter map:

Posted by: ObamaForPrez | January 31, 2008 6:53 PM | Report abuse

In general when going up against Clinton, Obama manages to fight it out to a draw. That generally rewards the front-runner. But I would argue, given the campaigning he's done and the endorsements, it won't really hurt him. In order to do something for himself Clinton must fall and hard, have a Philly moment that decisively moves the party to remember all the things they have worried about over her.

I don't think that Sen.Clinton is going to go there and will be hyper vigilant.

Overall, I have high hopes. Obama has gotten better in these debates and the last one in South Carolina illustrated that he could go toe to toe with Clinton in a way that did not dis-respect her or incite sympathy. Actually, Obama was the sympathetic figure from the last debate.

That has to be something the Clinton campaign will work hard to avoid; hence them attempting to begin the narrative that Obama goes on the attack and is the nasty one in the campaign before the debate even starts.

I'm just on pins and needles until Feb. 5th because with all the momentum Obama has; Clinton is still the front-runner with a great deal of institutional and structural support in this nomination. It'll be an up hill fight for Obama.

Posted by: Rhoda | January 31, 2008 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Not a good day for Hillary Clinton at all , take a look at this.

Posted by: cakemanjb | January 31, 2008 6:37 PM | Report abuse

To the spanish-lingual, thanks for giving that man a hand!

Posted by: bsimon | January 31, 2008 6:23 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me Obama can go in one of two ways.

On fighting McCain and security, his line would continue be we (Dems) lose. A moderate Republican, strong on national security. If the Democratic nominee says "I'll do much the same and be strong ... , well as strong ... look nearly as strong he is" - then the Dems lose. So, we must try a different approach.

Another approach would be to recognise that the Democrat's greatest fear is also the independents' or independently minded greatest wish. The moderate republican. "Nominate Clinton" he could say "and the choice in November is not much of a choice at all - let me explain how it will be different with me."

He can't use those words of course. The second option seems the less likely to me.

Posted by: dballagher | January 31, 2008 6:22 PM | Report abuse

"Mano a mano" is spanish for "hand to hand," as in hand to hand combat. You can tell that you aren't courting the spanish-speaking vote. Mano a womano is a little silly.

Posted by: owherald | January 31, 2008 6:06 PM | Report abuse

I'm an Obama supporter, I know he isn't the best in debates, but if he wins outright tonight it is game over for the Clinton camp. The amount of money he's raised, the endorsements he's gotten, the movement in the polls...this is his chance to seal the deal.

Si, se puede!

Posted by: slcathena | January 31, 2008 6:04 PM | Report abuse

I really wish that you didn't restate and manipulate the gender battle that people are tired of. Especially since I'm sure you know mano means hand. Come on, Chris. You can do better and your readers deserve better. Dump the race and gender stuff, hm? Not very journalistic of you, IMO.

Posted by: jillzimon | January 31, 2008 6:03 PM | Report abuse

"the worst debater EVER was George W Bush--really, can't a whole dissertation be written on how horribly he speaks, the problems with his logic, and the patronizing tone he took?"

Remember the Gore debate where Bush said something of debatable truth & Gore left his podium to go stand over Bush? That was one false step, of many, for the Gore campaign.

Posted by: bsimon | January 31, 2008 5:58 PM | Report abuse

I would like to see Obama articulate some of the policy specifics on which he's published position papers. The major criticism of him is that he's all about a rousing speech, but doesn't understand and/or have specific policy positions. I don't think that is true, and would like him to prove it, in a debate.

Posted by: bsimon | January 31, 2008 5:55 PM | Report abuse

I'm an Obama supporter, but I don't think he does well in the debates. I predict that Clinton will do better--she's really quite good. Perhaps I'm playing the game of lowering expectations for myself, but that's what I think will happen.

That said, the worst debater EVER was George W Bush--really, can't a whole dissertation be written on how horribly he speaks, the problems with his logic, and the patronizing tone he took? But it didn't matter, he won the most votes (in 2004). Kerry was articulate, well-spoken and his demeanor impeccable. So perhaps it doesn't matter at all how they do in the debates, unless they make a huge error or gaffe.

Posted by: Vaughan1 | January 31, 2008 5:43 PM | Report abuse

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