Obama Does Austin

For Hillary Clinton it is “do or die” time. She, of course, has lost ten election contests in a row and now trails Barack Obama by almost 100 delegates. Her husband concedes that she must win primary races in Ohio and Texas on March 4, but her leads in those states are narrowing. She needs to hold on to working class voters, but the Teamsters and “Change to Win” (a coalition of seven unions) just endorsed Obama.

At Thursday’s debate in Austin, Texas Clinton had her chance to knock Obama down a peg. The debate came on the heels of a gaffe from his wife Michelle (which got even liberal media outlets buzzing) that she had never been proud of America until her husband started winning primaries. (The Los Angeles Times declared yesterday that Michelle’s comment “was in keeping with the generally bleak view of the country that is the heart of her stump speech” and commented that her tendency “to dwell on the negative” is at odds with the couple’s high six figure income, million plus dollar home and personal success stories.)

Clinton started off by making her main pitch: she has done things like provide healthcare for kids in Texas and Ohio and her opponent has not. She made no bones about it: in HillaryCare insurance companies won’t be setting rates based on individuals’ health — the government presumably will set the prices. She also sounded a sober note, resisting Obama’s notion that the American President should rush to meet the newest Cuban dictator.  She of course had a basket of promises — freezing interest rates, “green jobs” and of course comprehensive immigration reform. What was missing?

Well, for reasons that escaped most observers, for much of the debate she appeared unwilling or unable to forcefully attack her opponent, to point out differences and to make the case why he should not be the nominee. Again and again she seemed to shy from a fight and avoid confrontation. She agreed on tax cuts and immigration and nodded frequently when he spoke.

Finally, at the one hour mark she seemed to perk up, going after Obama’s plagiarizing of  Governor Deval Patrick’s speech (“if your campaign is about words it should be about your own words”) and jabbing that this was “change you can Xerox.” He bristled, claimed he had been given permission to steal the lines and shifted to defending himself on the charge he was “leaving out” people from a Clinton-style mandatory health insurance scheme.

Nevertheless, she did not continue to press her case and again shied away when invited to agree with the moderator that Obama was not ready to be commander-in-chief. Rather than attack his lack of experience or naïveté, she backed away, contending that the voters would have to decide. Once again the moment was lost. (Both Democratic candidates not surprisingly refused to acknowledge real progress — both military and political — was being made in Iraq or deviate from their plans to evacuate Iraq whatever the circumstances.)

Nor was this Obama’s best outing by any means. Hoarse from a cold he stumbled over words at times, seemed peeved when questioned on the plagiarism allegation and  was hard pressed to find more than a handful of legislative accomplishments in his mere three years in the Senate. But as the frontrunner he needed merely to avoid a major stumble which he did, in large part because Clinton failed to force him on the defensive.

In the last moments of the debate, however, Clinton may have made some progress. Asked what moment of crisis each candidate had managed, Obama could not identify anything in particular and talked about, of course, the progress of his own life. Clinton in a knowing wink said she was sure everyone there knew about her life’s crisis. Then, she quickly pivoted and spoke about the sacrifice of many Americans and especially wounded soldiers, making clear that any difficulty in her life paled by comparison. Suddenly she seemed the more mature and less self-absorbed of the two. Perhaps contrasting her own sense of gratitude with the Obamas’ sense of entitlement and gloom she left an impression that she would still appreciate her lot in life if she lost. The crowd responded with a standing ovation. That ending is sure to be played and replayed in her ads and may make an impression on Democratic voters. It remains uncertain, however, if she made sufficient headway to stem the tide of Obama-mania rolling over the Democratic primary electorate.

The winner in all this? John McCain, who will not hesitate to point out that he is the only one fit to be commander-in-chief, the only one never to claim an earmark and remarkably, the only one seemingly interested in building a fence at the border. If Clinton is no match for Obama, it may be that McCain actually is.