Yesterday, Feb. 21, was quite a day in presidential campaigning. First, Arizona Sen. John McCain took on The New York Times head-on following front-page publication of a story implying that he had an irregular relationship with a young female lobbyist and that he may have shown favoritism to her and other lobbyist clients. Then, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in Austin, Texas, engaged in what was probably the best televised debate of the season.
McCain appears to have an early advantage in his conflict with the Times. The story did seem based on shaky sources and information. On the other hand, as David Brewster pointed out in his blog entry yesterday, national media have turned for the first time to matters in McCain's Arizona and Senate backgrounds that heretofore they have overlooked. McCain could find himself on the defensive over a continuing period, answering questions about those matters – and there are many on which he is vulnerable.
Their principal candidates, Obama of Illinois and Clinton of New York, ended the day with impressive performances in a debate centered around substantive issues. McCain ended his in a wrangle about his ethics with the country's most influential newspaper.
Both Obama and Clinton have honed their performances over many months until, now, they are in late-playoff form. Both kept their poise in the presence of the other. Clinton – having lost 11 straight contests one-sidedly to Obama and facing elimination if she loses Texas and Ohio on March 4 – gave what I thought was her best performance of the year. Her closing statement, which could be read as accepting possible defeat, was graceful and well delivered. Her husband was not in evidence. It was Hillary, just Hillary and her daughter, Chelsea, on the stage and working the audience. And Hillary came through famously.
Obama, for his part, conceded nothing in the substantive debate and skillfully made his case. In the end, it was two heavyweights battling to a draw. The energy in the University of Texas auditorium was far greater than at any Republican debate from the beginning of the process. I favor Obama but found myself being proud of both Clinton and Obama at the end of the evening. It is unlikely they will form a ticket. Neither should want to be No. 2 in an administration led by the other. Either, in 2009, would have far more power and influence as senator from New York or Illinois than as understudy to the other.
One thing to know about debates: Candidates go into them attempting, first of all, to make no big mistakes but, otherwise, to reinforce their own supporters. Both Obama and Clinton did that well last evening. The trouble for Clinton is that Obama's supporters are now more numerous than hers. In Texas, she and Obama are at a dead heat in the polls, whereas a fortnight ago Clinton had a 20-point lead. In Ohio, she has a slim single-digit lead as compared to an equally big 20-point lead just after Super Tuesday. Meantime, Obama continues to rake in more campaign money and to double her media spending. Clinton badly needs a break or external event which will stall Obama's momentum.
If they maintain last night's form, Obama and Clinton will provide us with first-rate political competition every day between now and March 4.