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And the answer to Hillary Clinton's 'question' contention is???

February 27, 2008 | 11:11 am

MSNBC's David Shuster (back from exile after his ill-considered Chelsea Clinton crack) did the grunt work and came up with the information we've been awaiting: Over the course of the last 10 Democratic presidential debates, starting with one in Philadelphia on Oct. 30, it's close to a draw in terms of who draws the opening question.

To be precise, the initial query was posed to Hillary Clinton six times, to Barack Obama four.

Perhaps the most aggrieved party should be John Edwards, who was still on stage for seven of these faceoffs and never once got to spout off first.

A closer look at Shuster's data does buttress Clinton's contention in Tuesday night's debate in Ohio that she's been asked to replay first an unusually large number of times.

In four out of the last five debates, the opening questions have been directed at her. Also, Shuster's research did not include the onerous task of trolling through transcripts to determine how often, as the debates proceeded, Clinton was singled out for the first response.

As we suspected, her comment about the flow of the questioning -- as well as her segue to last weekend's "Saturday Night Live" skit poking fun at the press for supposedly fawning over Obama -- has been much-remarked-upon. And the critiques ...

are almost entirely negatively.

Longtime Clinton-watcher Ron Fournier of the Associated Press opined that, "After trying to save her sinking candidacy with awkward turns of flattery and sarcasm, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton resorted to a new tactic in Tuesday night's debate: self-pity."

Fournier, as you can read here, went on to characterize Clinton as "sounding more like a put-upon third-grader than a presidential candidate."

MSNBC's "First Read" political note had this to say: "Clinton really flubbed that 'SNL' line. Like the 'Xerox' one from last week, it seemed rehearsed. And to echo NBC's David Gregory, what's wrong with getting the first question? It allows one to set the tone of the debate."

Roger Simon of Politico.com wrote that the SNL reference showed "how presidential campaigns can repeat their mistakes rather than learn from them."

Simon's piece (headlined "Hillary Clinton plays the victim card") continued: "The audience mumbled at this scripted and snarky line, just as an audience booed her in the last debate when she accused Obama of wanting 'change you can Xerox.' "

Perhaps the toughest take comes from Michael Goodwin of the New York Daily News.

He described her remark about debate questions "one of the strangest complaints I have ever seen in a presidential debate," adding that, "The self-pity behind the complaint was shocking and unappealing." And he termed the SNL gibe "a foolish rehearsed line."

Summarizing, he wrote: "Wow. Woe is her. What a blunder. This is political malpractice of the first order." (you can read the rest of the commentary here).

Not exactly the reviews the Clinton camp might have hoped for. But who knows what regular voters in Ohio and Texas make of all this. Perhaps, if the barrage continues, there will be a repeat of the New Hampshire scenario and Clinton will benefit from the sense that she's getting piled on.

-- Don Frederick

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