In the most heated debate of the cycle, the three Democrats on stage tonight in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, noted clear distinctions of both policy and personality. The increased ferocity comes both as an extension of the typically behind the scenes surrogate fight that has been going on for weeks and as a signal of the increased stakes after split decisions in Iowa and New Hampshire with February 5 looming on the horizon.
Both Clinton and Obama dug into the opposition research file tonight, frequently referencing past votes and apparent contradictions. Obama appeared eager to stand up to the Clinton machine and prove he has the fire to withstand the grueling election season. Obama's frustration at weeks of Clinton needling was visible throughout much of the first hour. Obama and Clinton traded blows over Bill Clinton's role in the campaign, Obama's praise for Ronald Reagan, health care plans, economic stimulus offerings, and the Iraq War. Obama went to great lengths to defend himself from every change, which made him seem either sharp or defensive, depending on one's perspective.
Clinton, for her part, was not about to back down, though her aggressiveness was pushed into outright anger at times. Responding to Obama's suggestion that she was a "corporate lawyer on the board of Wal-Mart," Clinton sharply replied that Obama was "representing your contributor Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago." That exchange was the perhaps the most heated of the night, but it certainly wasn't the only tense moment.
All things equal, John Edwards was the clear winner of this debate. He made the most of his time--rising above the Clinton vs. Obama tit-for-tat and backing up his points with a wealth of specifics. All things, of course, are not equal, but Edwards showed he remained a formidable debater with courtroom prowess. Unlike previous debates, this wasn't a two-on-one against Hillary Clinton, rather Edwards frequently teamed up with the former first lady to drive a point against Obama. On issues like health care and voting 'present' in the Illinois Senate, Edwards was unusually sharp against his oft ally. Without a doubt, Edwards was good, but did he do enough to change the momentum of his campaign?
In the end, the trio offered interesting contrasts on a variety of issues, with differing visions of leadership beyond 2008. With a supportive audience, the King holiday as a backdrop, and a lead in the state's polls, Obama is our default winner, though none of the three should leave the debate disappointed.
Clip of a few of the bitter exchanges in the SC Debate.
Cross-posted at Political Realm.