Hillary Clinton, the front-runner no more, sought to bury Barack Obama, but also to praise him in their latest campaign debate and revive her own White House hopes in the process.
“No matter what happens in this contest — and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama,” she said at the conclusion of the 90-minute forum. “Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.”
It was an unexpectedly gracious moment in a debate that was supposed to be a game changer for Clinton in the run-up to crucial primaries in Texas and Ohio March 4. After losing 11 straight contests to Obama in a race now clearly breaking his way, the former first lady chose the high road and even delivered what sounded to many like the dress rehearsal for a campaign valedictory address.
Her remarks were “almost a quasi-concession speech,” said Texas state Rep. Rafael Anchia, who backs Obama.
Clinton doubtless didn’t intend her words to be taken that way.
She worked hard to draw contrasts with Obama on issues, pressing her argument that Obama’s health care reform proposal would leave 15 million people uninsured. Obama has countered that Clinton’s plan, which requires everyone to carry insurance, would force people to purchase coverage they can’t afford.
But otherwise, Clinton steered away from any hard-hitting criticism of her rival. She agreed with him on most matters raised in the debate, including immigration policy and fixing the economy. She let pass a statement that he would be willing to meet with new Cuban leader Raul Castro “without precondition” after hammering him for making a similar comment in another debate last summer.
Clinton even sidestepped a question of whether the Illinois senator is ready to be commander in chief — an argument she makes clearly and forcefully before most campaign audiences.
“I will leave that for voters to decide,” Clinton said, opening an opportunity for her rival.
“I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I was prepared to be commander in chief,” Obama responded simply — winning back what could have been a breakthrough moment for the New York senator.
Obama, for his part, controlled the pace of the evening — calmly going toe to toe on issues with Clinton while forcefully challenging her argument that he is all promise and no results.
“The implication is that the people who’ve been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional,” Obama said. “The thinking is that somehow, they’ve been duped and they’re going to see the reality of things.”
Clinton’s only attempt to get tough was a crack about Obama borrowing lines from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — an argument pressed by her campaign this week, with little apparent effect.
“Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox,” Clinton said, eliciting a chorus of boos.
“She’s somewhat boxed in: play nice and let the Obamomentum continue, or sharpen the attacks and risk a backlash. It’s the Hobson’s choice faced by all trailing candidates,” said Dan Newman, a California-based Democratic strategist not affiliated with either candidate.
That’s why the end of the debate and Clinton’s generous praise of Obama stood out — an unprompted gesture that followed another poignant moment, when she acknowledged the pain of her husband’s dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment.
“I think everybody here knows I’ve lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life,” she said, winning applause and cheers.
Was it another example of Clinton “finding her voice” — showing the kind of flash of humanity that helped her win the New Hampshire primary last month?
Her advisers clearly thought yes.
“What we saw in the final moments in that debate is why Hillary Clinton is the next president of the United States,” spokesman Howard Wolfson said. “Her strength, her life experience, her compassion. She’s tested and ready. It was the moment she retook the reins of this race and showed women and men why she is the best choice.”
Beth Fouhy covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.