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Final Face-Off: Clinton, Obama Spar in Ohio

During the lead-up to Saturday’s debate in Texas, all the pundits agreed that Hillary Clinton needed to come out swinging. But she played nice instead. So the big question before the Ohio debate was: Which Hillary Clinton would we see? Conciliatory Clinton or Pillory Hillary? Now, as any honestly greedy person will tell you, the answer to most either/or questions is… Both!

And that’s what we got in tonight’s debate — both Hillary Clintons.

Clinton was at great pains to make sure we knew where she and Barack Obama agreed. On NAFTA, on the need to get out of Iraq, on the necessity for universal health care… Clinton always made sure we understood exactly where she was in sync with the ever-more-popular junior senator from Illinois.

Clinton was also at great pains to make sure we knew where she disagreed with Obama. More often than not, their disagreements were over the minutia of policy details. Ann Althouse called the debate “an annoying combination of wonky and angry.” She got that right.

The debate opened with 16 minutes of discussion over whose mandatory health care plan was the most mandatory, and whose was slightly less intrusive. That part of the debate went on so long, in fact, that moderator Brian Williams even joked about it near the end. And what did we learn? That Clinton cares very deeply whether or not anyone, anywhere, might somehow be able to escape the clutches of HillaryCare. We also learned that Obama cares only very slightly less.

On NAFTA the candidates are agreed: Free trade sucks. Although Obama was quick enough to provide a little shout-out to American workers’ productivity, a smart move in blue-collar Ohio. In fact, that line could be seen as poaching on yet another of Clinton’s core constituencies. It could be seen that way because that’s exactly what Obama was doing. Neither candidate would be cornered into threatening to cut off NAFTA inside of six months, but both promised to “reexamine” or “renegotiate” the treaty. The fact that the original agreement took years, not months, to negotiate was left unmentioned. That NAFTA then took a determined President Clinton and a lot of willing Republican Senators to get ratified was left unmentioned, too.

The two candidates also disagreed on… well, mostly they disagreed on who would make the best president. Tonight’s telling detail was the Man Who Wasn’t There. Both candidates agreed that George Bush was terrible, awful, etc. But the name left virtually unmentioned was John McCain. One of these two potential nominees will almost certainly be squaring off against McCain next fall. Was their failure to frame themselves against him a sign of confidence or weakness?

If I had to summarize the debate with some clever sounding phrase, I’d call it the “Chinese Food Debate.” An hour later, I remember there being a lot of stuff on the table, but all I feel is empty inside.

My favorite Clinton-leaning blog, TalkLeft, summarized the debate like so:

NBC stinks. Tim Russert stinks. Brian Williams stinks. Keith Olbermann stinks. Chris Matthews stinks. Who won the debate? No one. Who lost? Everyone.

So who really won? My gut tells me that nobody won — which counts as a win for Obama. If you really want to know who won, don’t look at tomorrow’s poll numbers. Instead, wait until the weekend. If by then, Clinton is still sinking in Ohio, then chalk up one very big win for Obama. If Hillary holds steady, then score it as a minor win — again, for Obama. Clinton had too much to do tonight, and too little time to do it in. And with too little sympathy, I think, in middle America for her efforts.

Clinton was at great pains to separate herself from her husband’s trade legacy. She was at great pains to separate herself from her Iraq War vote. She was at great pains to draw distinctions between herself and Obama. Mostly what came across was, Hillary Clinton was in great pain.

Twin losses in Texas and Ohio next week might just put her out of her misery — but don’t count on it. The Clinton we saw tonight might not have fought well, but she certainly showed that, at long last, she’s willing to fight.

Stephen Green blogs at Vodkapundit.