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After sleeping on it ...

November 16, 2007 |  9:03 am

LAS VEGAS -- Well, when we doused the lights last night, the general sense here was that Hillary Clinton -- wearing her "asbestos" pantsuit -- had managed to right her slightly listing ship during Thursday's Democratic debate at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.  And after a short night's sleep, we don't see much reason to change that early assessment.

In what may have been the night's signature theme, John Edwards got in the first harsh criticism of Clinton after moderator Wolf Blitzer asked him about his pre-debate slap that she was engaged in the "politics of parsing." Responded Edwards:

"The most important issue is she says she will bring change to Washington, while she continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and is corrupt; corrupted against the interest of most Americans and corrupted for a very small, very powerful, very well-financed group."

You can't really call it a trap, because Clinton didn't ask the question.  But she obviously was ready for it:

"I respect all of my colleagues on this stage. And, you know, we're Democrats and we're trying to nominate the very best person we can to win. And I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook.... [F]or him to be throwing this mud and making these charges I think really detracts from what we're trying to do here tonight. We need to put forth a positive agenda for America telling people what we're going to do when we get the chance to go back to the White House."

Bill Richardson picked up the theme and that set the undercurrent for the debate. Even Edwards came back and said none of the harshness was personal, simply the politics of pointing out the differences among the candidates. To be sure, there was some bickering and a few more rocks thrown, but none of them were the kind of pace-shifting moments that could make or break a campaign. And how could they, after the chief rock-thrower essentially told voters not to take them seriously?

In broad terms, Clinton showed that the last debate was the aberration, and that she's resumed her firm grasp of the reins on that front-running horse.  And no, she hasn't been targeted by the others because she's a woman, a theme that emerged after the last debate. "They're attacking me because I'm ahead," Clinton said.

Overall, Clinton did what she needed to do.  Barack Obama again gave a rather lackluster performance, marked by a few sharp moments.  Edwards, as we pointed out, self-negated and did nothing to help himself climb out of his swing spot as either being the bottom of the top tier or the top of the bottom tier.  Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson came off as amiable, capable candidates but, again, no fires were lit.  Dennis Kucinich, in his best moment, didn't know when to stop, capping a compelling soliloquy with the kind of comment that energizes the progressives but alienates the core of the party:

"The president of the United States is called upon to make the right decision at the right time.  And you've seen here tonight people who voted for the war, voted to fund the war, now they have a different position. People voted for the Patriot Act. Now they have a different position. People voted for China trade. Now they have a different position. People who voted for Yucca Mountain. Now they had a different position. Just imagine what it will be like to have a president of the United States who's right the first time. Just imagine.... [W]hat are you going to do about this president, and for that matter the vice president, because they're out of control, and Congress isn't doing anything. It's called impeachment, and you don't wait. You do it now. You don't wait."

But in what may become the debate's biggest echo, Obama booted the question that everyone in the English-speaking world knew was coming -- whether he supported issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. That's the question that Clinton fumbled in the last debate, and that Obama's campaign had been using as a bludgeon ever since, accusing Clinton of being incapable of delivering a straight answer to a simple question.  Obama's answer Thursday?  Well, you navigate these currents:

"When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance to protect public safety. That was my intention. And -- but I have to make sure that people understand. The problem we have here is not driver's licenses. Undocumented workers do not come here to drive. They don't go -- they're not coming here to go to the In-N-Out Burger. That's not the reason they're here. They're here to work. And so instead of being distracting by what has now become a wedge issue, let's focus on actually solving the problem that this administration, the Bush administration, had done nothing about it."

Blitzer followed by asking Obama whether he supported issuing the licenses, and Obama said: "I am not proposing that that's what we do." When Blitzer then said, "This is the kind of question that is sort of available for a yes or no answer," the crowd laughed -- clearly getting that Obama had lost his way home.  Asked moments later for a "yes or no" answer, Obama said, "Yes." Now, how hard was that?

Of course, not that many of you watched the debate (you can read it here while pretending to work, but be warned, this morning it was still an early transcript and incomplete).  One of the realities of presidential campaigns is that what gets said in the media today has more of an effect on perceptions of what happened than the event itself.  That's why debate organizers open up those little "spin rooms" outside the debate halls to let the candidates or their surrogates try to persuade the media that they didn't just see what they just saw.

So feel free to add your two cents' worth in the comments section -- consider it your personal spin room -- and we'll figure out if we all saw the same debate.  But since this is Vegas, we'll wager that'll be a no.

-- Scott Martelle