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News Analysis

N.Y. senator's rhetoric fails to shift the balance

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / February 22, 2008

AUSTIN, Texas - Barack Obama last night was wonky and detailed enough to set heads nodding in Capitol committee rooms, but delivered probably the most effectively boring debate performance in recent presidential politics.

Leading in the race for Democratic delegates and facing the complaint that he was offering what his opponent, Hillary Clinton - in her most stinging attack line - called "change you can Xerox," Obama knew he had to dial down his rhetoric and get specific. And for the most part, he did.

"What I've been talking about is not just hope and not just inspiration: It's a $4,000 tuition credit for every student, every year, in exchange for national service, so that college becomes more affordable," Obama said, launching into a list of specific proposals.

Clinton, for her part, did not let him rest on his laurels, or get away with claiming that there are few differences in their platforms.

She dogged him on the respective merits of their healthcare plans and did not waiver in her claim that he is insufficiently prepared to be president.

And while Obama was dialing down, she raised the volume a bit. Her tone of voice - which can tend toward the monotonous - rose with passion when talking about healthcare and drooped with sorrow when discussing the failures of the Bush administration.

She even added a new hand gesture, cupping her hands and reaching out to the crowd.

Having lost 11 straight contests, Clinton needed to do something powerful last night to change the dynamic of the race - a new line of attack, a deeper personal connection with voters, a dramatic new policy proposal.

But while Clinton did nothing to hurt her chances, she failed to deliver any such game-changing moment. And Obama did not provide one with any serious gaffes.

"I thought Obama played it safe," said Wayne Lesperance, political science professor at New England College. "He didn't take the bait. There were times when she tried to drag him in and he didn't bite."

Instead, Obama played the standard game of a front-runner, blurring distinctions between the two opponents.

"Senator Clinton and I have been talking about these problems for 13 months," Obama said near the start of the debate. "We both offer detailed proposals to deal with them."

When the conversation turned to foreign policy, where Clinton has excelled in most debates, she was again smoothly effective.

Clinton's plan for dealing with the change in Cuban leadership - look for signs of change and prepare to encourage them - was measured and presidential.

But so, too, was Obama's response, emphasizing his willingness to meet with any world leader, even an enemy of the United States, but saying he would allow significant time for "preparations" before sitting down with Raúl Castro.

Obama also beat Clinton to the punch in declaring that the economy is "in shambles" and calling for firm action to combat job losses and home foreclosures.

She followed with her own emotional evocation of the struggles of voters she has met, and her own, slightly more detailed, plan to prevent home losses.

But on an issue as important as the economy, a tie goes to the front-runner. And Clinton is no longer the front-runner.

That new reality of the presidential race was evident throughout the debate, from Obama's low-key opening statement to Clinton's emotional conclusion - a more scripted effort to summon the kind of feelings that emerged when she choked up in a New Hampshire diner, shattering her overly groomed image.

Her gracious closing - expressing pride in sharing the stage with Obama, promising that she will be fine no matter what happens in the campaign, and saying how fervently she hopes the same will be true for all the people she's met on the trail - no doubt sounded to some like a farewell address.

That would be premature. But it is now apparent that Clinton's early inability to define her candidacy - through constantly changing themes and slogans - deprived her of a positive message, a reason for people to stand up and cheer her.

When she finally settled on the theme of readiness and experience, it merely established her as a foil to Obama - the skillful sparring partner against which the talented newcomer gets to show off his stuff.

If that newcomer succeeds in beating the old pro in the big states of Texas and Ohio, which will vote in less than two weeks, there will be little hope left for Hillary Clinton.

The race is now Barack Obama's to lose.

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