Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Showdown lowdown

There was no Rocky Balboa moment, no haymaker to the head, no game-changing statement uttered by either Sens. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama at Tuesday’s Democratic debate. Having effectively debated to a draw at the third of the one-on-one matchups between them, both Clinton and Obama stayed where they were before the debate even happened.

That fact is hugely problematic for the Clinton campaign. There were hopes in her camp that the third time would be the proverbial charm, that Clinton would land the one punch that would short-circuit the Obama juggernaut. That didn’t happen, and they’re left with the prospect of a tightening race in Texas and Ohio, two of the more pivotal remaining states in the primary season.

Once again, to invoke tennis parlance, Clinton held serve. Her handlers and advisers will no doubt say “it was a good night for the senator.” She needed a stellar one.

Basically, the Clinton campaign needed to have Barack Obama drooling into his shoes for her to prevail. But throughout, Obama displayed much the same unflappable cool that’s characterized his previous debate performances, giving as good as he got on issues from health care to the Iraq war, from the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement to whether or not he should accept the endorsement of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Some in the blogosphere said today that Obama seemed to lack the house-afire charisma so evident at his campaign rallies. Probably true enough. But in the hermetic context of a one-on-one debate, Obama didn’t need to display charisma, he needed to demonstrate competence. He brought it, big time.

“Mr. Obama had the advantage of being the candidate with relatively little to prove,” wrote Adam Nagourney in The New York Times. “The past few weeks have offered increasing evidence that Democratic voters have considered the arguments Mrs. Clinton and others have made against Mr. Obama’s candidacy — not ready to lead the country in a time of war; unexamined and subject to an array of attacks by Republicans in the fall; not substantive enough on the issues — and have, for the most part, rejected them.”

The race for Ohio and Texas, the two big prizes to be carved up on Tuesday (Vermont and Rhode Island delegates are also up for grabs), continues to tighten. But barring some deus ex machina moment, the stage is set for another photo-finish next week.

The Clinton campaign may think it still has time to unlock the mystery of Barack Obama’s appeal before next Tuesday. As the clock clicks down, though, they may discover what legions of Obama’s supporters already believe: There is no mystery to unravel, no secret code to be deciphered. Barack Obama may just be the right candidate at the right time, peaking at the right moment.

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