Clinton Obama Texas Debate: Studious, Some Fireworks But No One’s Alamo

It was billed as what could potentially be a debate for the political ages: a debate in Texas, where polls show Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a dead heat — a debate where some predicted Clinton would have to pepper Obama with zingers, provoke him into some kind of overreaction, or hit a home run herself.

But in the end, it proved to be largely a studious debate that was surprisingly (and refreshingly) issue-oriented. Clinton’s home run didn’t quite materialize but she gave an answer about adversity that brought the crowd to its feet — but it is unlikely to prove to have been a major vote-changing, election-turning response.

And the prepared zingers everyone was waiting for?

Clinton hit Obama on the plagiarism issue with what was clearly a prepared-in-advance zinger and the result showed that sometimes zingers are perhaps left un-zinged. The Washington Post’s
Chris Cillizza:

Asked about his lifting of lines from Gov. Deval Patrick (Mass.), Obama sought to dismiss the charges of plagiarism as the sort of politics the American public is sick of. “The notion I had plagiarized from someone who is one of my national co-chairs who gave me the line and suggested I use it I think is silly,” Obama said. “This is where we get into silly season in politics and people start getting discouraged about it.”

Clinton, however, clearly believes this is a political weak spot for Obama and went after it — hard. “If your candidacy is going to be about words, they should be your own words,” said Clinton. “Lifting whole passages is not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox.”

That line, obviously prepared in advance of tonight’s debate, fell flat. The crowd went silent and then a smattering of boos rang out. Obama shook his head and muttered to himself.

Here’s the YouTube of the moment:
YouTube Preview Image

But it that proved to be the put-him-away-zinger that wasn’t, its negative impact was likely offset by Clinton’s closer. CNN’s Bill Schneider:

The audience loved Clinton’s first response when asked about a time she had been tested – a deliberately vague answer that drew a knowing laugh from many in the audience.

She then laid out a very eloquent response, essentially saying that her crises are nothing compared to the problems average voters confront.

It’s one of the few debate answers to get a standing ovation.

The New York Time’s lively The Caucus blog did live blogging and describes the ending high-note this way:

What moment of crisis has tested you the most? Mr. Obama answers broadly, saying that in his youth, he made mistakes and was “off course” but learned to take responsibility for my own actions. Mrs. Clinton pauses and surprises here, actually responding with a reference to the crisis that certainly sprang to our mind: “Everybody here knows I’ve lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life.” She then offers a lengthy, slightly maudlin peroration on the idea that whatever problems she has faced, they pale in comparison to what other people go through.

And then in the final surprise of the night, she reaches over to shake hands with Mr. Obama and says she is honored to be here with him. And the crowd goes wild. It ends on that note.

Here’s some of the AP’s take on the event:

Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Democratic presidential rival Barack Obama of political plagiarism Thursday night and said he represented “change you can Xerox.”

Obama dismissed the charge out of hand, adding in a campaign debate, “What we shouldn’t be doing is tearing each other down, we should be lifting the country up.”

NOTE: That response will play well with independent voters. The plagiarism issue was a skyrocket issue that burst into the political sky, then flamed out and was overshadowed in news cycles by the current old and new news media coverage of the John McCain/New York Times scandal/non-scandal (pick one) battle (which will also likely fizzle out soon). It was an example of a zinger that was used beyond its realistic news cycle shelf life. MORE from AP:

The exchange marked an unusually pointed moment in an otherwise civil encounter in the days before March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio — contests that even some of Clinton’s supporters say she must win to sustain her campaign for the White House.

In a university auditorium in the heart of Texas, the two agreed that high-tech surveillance measures are preferable to construction of a fence to curtail illegal immigration.

They disagreed on the proper response to a change in government in Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro’s resignation. Clinton said she would refuse to sit down with incoming President Raul Castro until he implements political and economic reforms. Obama said he would meet “without preconditions,” but added the U.S. agenda for such a session would include human rights in the communist island nation.

They also sparred frequently about health care, a bedrock issue of the campaign.

Clinton said repeatedly that Obama’s plan would leave 15 million Americans uncovered.

But he, in turn, accused the former first lady of mishandling the issue by working in secrecy when her husband was in the White House.

UPDATE:
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson says Clinton’s final statement says it all:

Spokesman Howard Wolfson highlights Clinton’s final statement of the night: “What we saw in the final moments in that debate is why Hillary Clinton is the next President of the United States. Her strength, her life experience, her compassion. She’s tested and ready. It was the moment she retook the reins of this race and showed women and men why she is the best choice.”

Some quick impressions of the debate:

–The bulk of it was well-mannered.

–You get the feeling the plagiarism zinger was set up to try to fluster Obama, make him lose his cool and perhaps respond in a way that could be used against him. Instead, if you watched the debate (and video) it feel flat and then got boos. It was sort of like a comedian doing an x-rated joke at a church gig.

–Clinton was much better at letting her passion come through but became grating when she would not stick to asked questions and went back old topics.

–Obama’s discipline was notable in not biting the baited hook set out for him several times by Clinton. On the other hand, will this mean some Democratic voters will feel he doesn’t have the go-for-the-jugular instinct needed in a Democratic nominee? His answers were detailed and assertive.

–Specificity was an underlying issue and Obama handled it well. Anyone watching the debate who was not a Clinton partisan would conclude he was talking about specific programs and issues, not just aspirations.

–Clinton’s best setting is the debate setting. Obama’s has usually been his weakest. Both performed well.

–Democrats will salivate at having either Clinton or Obama at the head of their ticket due to their positions on issue. Many Republicans will, too — due to their positions on issues. As in the mid-terms, independent voters will likely hold the key to victory — but with President George Bush’s approval rating hitting 19 percent in one poll, the Republicans’ job will be tougher.

UPDATE FINAL THOUGHT: Several bloggers say they felt Clinton was sort of giving her swan song. I didn’t get that impression but if that was it remember: if Obama gets the nomination and loses and Clinton eventually drops out rather than splitting up the party, she’ll be in a good position to launch another Presidential nomination bid in 2012. The key question is whether she (and her husband) feel it’s all or nothing now or, if she loses upcoming primaries and can’t win, that she’s best off leaving the race gracefully and relaunching a 2012 candidacy the day after Election Day if Obama loses.

WEBLOG REACTION:

Cyrus Truth:

I am so sick of people claiming victory for Clinton after every single debate. Tonight she came out against Obama swinging and making sharp comments about Obama and specially the plagiarism issue that her campaign has worked so hard to stick to Obama. At the end, she managed to steal, yet again, another Edwards line. In fact, savvy reporters were able to find the exact line that Edwards used to close his debate a while back. What Clintons are trying to do is not plagiarism. It’s trickery, and Clintons should be ashamed of themselves for using every tactic under the sun to win a stupid campaign.

Flopping Aces on the zinger:

I do not want anyone mistakingly saying one of us “evil conservatives” made this up. It is fun to watch Hillary Clinton’s claws come out against someone else for a change instead of the fantasy “Vast Right Winged Conspiracy”.

I “hope” Obama is ready for the claws out Clinton. Now, as to if those claws have lost their effectiveness, that will be decided at the DNC Convention and the fallout afterwards. All of that promises to be ugly with two disenfranchised states and the superdelegates.

The Reaction has live blogging. Read it all but here’s the conclusion:

Well, that’s it. No gaffes, no real blows, no nothing. I can’t see how this changes the equation at all. If this is the case it must be called a loss for Hillary, because she is the one who needed to make a splash.

Marc Ambinder thinks Obama won the debate and Clinton won the final moment:

Almost wistful … acknowledging reality… but forcefully asserting her humanity … extremely, seemingly, genuine. And at the right time… at the end… earning one of the only standing ovations in the 40-plus hours of debates.

If this moment makes the debate for her, she will have pulled out in the end.

….It was Obama’s debate for most of the night. HRC needed him to stumble; he did not.
At this stage, though, the debates are mostly about moments, and Obama had the second-best I think, when he rebutted Clinton’s assertion that Democrats needed to “get real” about his candidacy. Obama’s answers were well plotted — a veggies-to-desert pivot, first recounting empathetic encounters with hurting citizens and then saying that Washington as currently constituted couldn’t solve that problem.

–Fraters Libertas poses an intriguing question to its readers about Clinton’s final answer.

Taylor Marsh, who has emerged as one of the most reliably pro-Clinton bloggers, points to Clinton’s excellent final answer and gives the You Tube of it. Some of her other reaction:

During the first forty-five minutes they talked in depth about issues, with the conversation polite. I think people who like Clinton will stay in her court; same for Obama.

But in the next segment, Clinton got off the line of the night. It will be repeated on newscasts across the country. That’s something that benefits Clinton.

As for Obama, he has improved significantly. But once again, he can not find an end to his meandering explanations. I’m beginning to doubt if he could find a concise point on a Scrabble board, with a finite number of letters. His rambling is an obsession at this point and gets old quickly.

….At the end, the audience jumped to their feet. It was in great part because of Clinton’s close. It’s what people will be talking about. Women will be moved by her. She showed the same grace that came through in New Hampshire. Tremendous moment on which to end.

TNR’s The Plank:

Obama had a very good debate and kept his momentum despite Clinton’s marvelous final answer. I would just add that there were a couple of moments where Obama’s cockiness was extremely off-putting. His comment about “very good” speeches was tonally wrong, and he needs to stop saying “I was right” about matters of foreign policy (especially when the subject is murky questions like what to do about Pakistan). Still, it’s probably fortunate for him that the main soundbite from the night will be Hillary’s attack on the plagiarism charge, which fell very flat.

Both Ben Stein and Josh Marshall suspect Mrs. Clinton was using someone else’s words (so will reporters ask her if she has a Xerox machine?)

Allahpundit on Clinton’s zinger:

She may not be a good campaigner, and she may not have any qualifications for the presidency, and she may not be nearly as smart as she’s cracked up to be, and she may not have a hope in hell of remaining viable after March 4, but our gal came up with a honey of a line here. I laughed for a good two minutes afterwards.

I wonder who wrote it for her.

John Amato:

I thought they both did quite well tonight outside the line above. Debating is a very good platform for Hillary and she shined—especially her closing statement, but so did Barack. This used to be a weakness for him in my mind, but he’s improved dramatically and is quite comfortable going one on one.

Ed Morrissey looks at and analyzes the zinger (he also has the YouTube):

It’s a good line, but she’s the wrong messenger. Hillary has spent the last year campaigning as the re-run of the Clinton administration, claiming all of the experience from those eight years while taking none of the responsibility for its failures. If anyone is the Xerox candidate, it’s Hillary.

….Note the bad timing here. Obama spends his time talking about changing the tone in politics and focusing on solutions, and he gets a big response from the audience. Hillary tries the zinger and pretty much validates everything Obama just got done saying.

Firedoglake:

Hillary had a good open and very strong close. She tried to ding Obama on the speech thing and health care, but I’m not sure she landed any real punches. Obama didn’t make any mistakes and did a good job deflecting Hillary’s (few) attempts to really engage 1-on-1.

My bottom line: I didn’t see a major Obama mistake tonight, and though Hillary did well, she also got booed when she went after the “plagiarism” thing, which was kind of clumsy.

I score it a narrow win for Obama, who settled down after a slightly nervous start.

Red State:

You can just feel the annoyance she has that Obama can say “dog feces is good for you” and people will faint, wake up, and immediately run out to consume the poop.

By the way, John Edwards’ name came up twice tonight. Both times by Hillary Clinton singing his praises. You think she’s wooing him for a last minute endorsement? It’d probably help her in both Texas and Ohio, more so than it would help Obama were he to get the Edwards nod. And it would really make Edwards the Queen Maker.

Patrick Appel:

Clinton getting booed for saying, “that’s change we can Xerox,” trying to zing Obama on the alleged plagiarism charge, shows just how little that line of attack resonates with voters. She was good tonight. He was better. Her response to the final question was the most emotional I have seen her give in a debate (it was a good moment for her), but I didn’t see anything sufficient to stop Obama’s momentum. We’ll see what the voters of Texas in Ohio thought soon enough.