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The Democratic Debate: Clinton on the Attack

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) took the fight to Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in the first 45 minutes of the Democratic debate here tonight over alleged inconsistencies in his record, but then watched as that effort was countermanded by a defense of the Illinois Senator by former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).

Clinton, for the first time in these debates, went on offense against Obama -- not a coincidence given her third place finish in Thursday's Iowa caucuses. She said that Obama had contradicted himself on health care and not offered enough specifics on the issue. "What we're looking for is a president we can count on," said Clinton.

She also took on Obama on change, a centerpiece of his campaign and a bedrock of his win in Iowa. Clinton insisted all the Democrats are for a change in the status quo so the real question was how to bring about change. "Making change is not about what you believe, it is not about a speech you make, it is about working hard," she said, adding: "I think it is clear that what we need is someone who can deliver change. We don't need to be raising the false hopes of the country."

Obama largely resisted taking on Clinton on personal ground, seeking to make an argument centered on their legitimate policy differences. "I have no problem with you pointing out areas where you think we have differences," Obama said in the middle of an exchange with Clinton.

Edwards' approach was different. As he has done throughout this campaign, Edwards condemned Clinton in personal terms -- suggesting that he and Obama stood on one side of the "change" chasm while Clinton stood on the other. "Anytime you speak out powerfully for change, the forces of status quo attack," said Edwards. "I didn't hear these kind of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead."

Edwards' decision to side with Obama in the three-way debate complicated Clinton's attempts to strike a clean blow against Obama, a punch her campaign clearly believes it needs to land before New Hampshire voters head to the polls on Tuesday.

During the three-way exchange, Clinton showed a fire rarely seen in her campaign to date. It's not immediately clear whether that will accrue to her benefit or not in the eyes of New Hampshire voters. On the one hand, Clinton could easily be cast as angry by her rivals; on the other, her passion for the campaign is something that has been sorely lacking so far in this race.

Other early highlights:

* Give Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) credit. He has largely been left out of the debate's first half but he managed to deliver the line of the night so far. "I've been in hostage negotiations that are a lot more civil than this," Richardson deadpanned to a roar of laughter from the audience both in the room and in the media center.

* Obama has successfully negotiated a first 45 minutes focused almost exclusively on Pakistan and other foreign policy matters -- an area where his opponents believed he was potentially vulnerable heading into the debate. Obama successfully pivoted the conversation on foreign policy back to the war in Iraq -- an area where his initial opposition is entirely in sync with the base of the party in New Hampshire. "We were distracted by a war of choice and that is the flaw of the Bush doctrine," said Obama.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 5, 2008; 9:57 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: Democratic Debate: Edwards Backs Up Obama

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