A Clash of Styles in Ohio Debate

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Mark Duncan / AP

Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama shake hands after their debate in Cleveland.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debated for the 20th time Tuesday night about health care, trade, Iraq and their own campaign tactics. And though it sometimes took a magnifying glass to measure their differences on policy, the distinctions in their personal styles were visible from satellite.

Clinton was clearly intent on positioning herself as a fighter who could take on Republicans in the fall and all enemies, foreign and domestic, after that. Obama by contrast seemed far more interested in establishing himself as a cool conciliator, who could bridge the differences that divide his party and the nation.

The 90-minute affair, sponsored by MSNBC and held on the campus of Cleveland State University, had most of the same features we have come to expect of the last round of Clinton-Obama debates: strong jabs, deep dives into health care policy, pointed arguments over the meaning of words—and another cordial, high-road finish.

For most of the debate Obama, taking advantage of his front-runner status, played good, error-free baseball as Clinton tried to score on him from every imaginable direction. Beyond that, the tenor of the evening depended in part on what you were shopping for. Clinton tried time and again to draw sharp distinctions between herself and Obama, and argue that the differences matter; while Obama, turning aside most of the distinctions large or small, used his time to rise above the arguments, elevate the conversation and invoke the larger causes that dominate his campaign speeches. In this regard, Obama narrowly but unmistakably outpointed Clinton, with the potentially decisive Ohio and Texas primaries less than a week away.

The emotional high point in the debate came on a discussion of the Iraq war, when Clinton accused Obama of having given a good speech against the war at first but then, in essence, having an identical record to hers' after he came to the Senate. Obama dismissed that argument dramatically, saying Iraq "was a big strategic blunder" and then arguing that Clinton "facilitated and enabled" George W. Bush in driving "the bus into the ditch."

Shown a tape of her mocking Obama on the stump for being naive about politics, Clinton said, "I was having a little fun. The larger point is that I know that trying to get health insurance for every Americans that's affordable is not gonna be easy... I know it takes a fighter." Emphasizing her skills as a fighter, the Clinton campaign had clearly calculated, would help her in economically stricken Ohio.

But Obama, in response, came very close to implying that Clinton has at times seen her role as that of only a fighter. "I have made it clear that hope is not enough. What I also believe is that the only way we are going to get this stuff done is to mobilize the American people so that they pay attention to what their government is doing. There is nothing romantic or silly about that."

There were moments when the debate was about the debate itself: Clinton complained early on that she seemed to get all the questions first—suggesting that this trend gave her opponent more time to formulate an answer, and echoing her campaign's recent line of attack that the media has given Obama a free ride. That was a somewhat curious complaint from someone running for President, but may have been an effort to pick up some last-minute support from female voters.

At times, Obama showed a lawyer's flair for conceding the small points that aren't worth arguing about. This pattern was most visible in an unexpected exchange over whether Obama has sufficiently distanced himself from Louis Farrakhan's expressions of support for his candidacy. After Obama had said he has long denounced Farrakhan's anti-Semitic statements, Clinton said Obama had to do more and flat-out reject his support. Obama, sensing a tiny opening that Clinton had carved in his performance, asked whether there was much of a semantic difference between the words "reject" and "denounce," but then defused the situation by ceding the point to Clinton and agreeing to do both.

Clinton seemed intent upon painting Obama as unready to be commander in chief, criticizing her opponent for not holding oversight hearings of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and suggesting Obama had once talked of bombing Pakistan. Obama criticized Clinton for voting for the war; Clinton criticized Obama for voting for "Dick Cheney's energy bill." Obama dodged a question from Tim Russert about whether he would abide by a promise to accept public financing in a general election campaign, while Clinton vowed to release her personal tax returns "upon becoming the nominee." If not sooner, she added.

The two candidates played to a draw during their 16-minute discussion of their respective health care plans and how each of their campaigns had used accurate or inaccurate allegations to describe them. Nor did the conversation about NAFTA and who was most for it or against it yield a lot of clarity, though Obama's record on the issue is less muddled than Clinton's.

At the end, each candidate threw a bouquet at the other, a now predictable—and shrewd —coda for both of them, whether they were in a conciliatory or a fighting mood.