Clinton tries to take down Obama in the Democratic debate.

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Jan. 6 2008 11:29 AM

Comeback Swing

Clinton tries to take down Obama in the Democratic debate.

Find John Dickerson's coverage of the Republican debate here.

There's been a lot of talk about change in this election, but in looking at the four remaining candidates on the Democratic side at Saturday night's debate, it was hard not to see the change. There is only one middle-aged white guy left in the running.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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There's going to be change no matter who is elected, and Hillary Clinton threw a lot at Barack Obama in trying to make the case that his kind of change was risky. She accused him of Mitt Romney-like flip-flopping on health care, the Patriot Act, and the Iraq war, and she obliquely compared him to George Bush—warning voters they shouldn't repeat the mistake of voting for a candidate because he was the kind of fellow you wanted to have a beer with.

Clinton is continuing to try to create a fog of doubt around Obama in the hopes that voters will worry he has hidden problems or is too much of an unknown quantity to take a gamble on, but with two days before the voting begins, the many and varied attacks might also make Clinton look scattershot and desperate. Obama weathered all of the challenges well during the 90-minute debate. He looked like the front-runner he now is. 

Will Clinton's strategy work? Inconstancy is not one of Obama's known trouble spots, the way his experience is, which means it's a harder sell. Clinton has to educate voters about the specific policy issues she has raised first before she can convince voters those deficits justify voting for her over Obama. That's hard to do in less than three days, even when Obama gives her occasional ammunition. During the debate, Obama said any of his rivals would be a change from the Bush years, but he has spent a good portion of the campaign arguing that Clinton's foreign policy approach would be no different than the Bush-Cheney approach. That's another inconsistency but not enough of one to block Obama's momentum.

You can see how Clinton would be irritated by Obama's rise. For years she hasn't been able to sneeze without the press, Republican critics, and other opponents getting up her nose. In the face of the scrutiny, she's kept her head down, done her homework, and soldiered on. Now comes this guy she thinks is getting a pass and who she thinks hasn't done the work, and he's passing her. Add those irritants to her lack of sleep and the utter exhaustion all candidates are feeling and it's a surprise Clinton hasn't just blown her top.

She almost did. In a moment that will get more focus than it deserves but which highlights a problem that is not mere stylistic piffle, Clinton showed a flash of anger during the debate that might cause her problems.  She got exasperated when arguing that she had achieved tangible change in her life and that those kinds of results are what voters should be most focused on. Her point was valid, and voters should want a president with that kind of tenacity, but for a candidate who already has troubles with voters who don't like her personal presentation, Clinton's answer fed into the worst stereotype about her. What won't get as much play is that later in the debate, Clinton achieved perfect pitch when asked why New Hampshire voters didn't like her. "Well, that hurts my feelings," she said with a believable smile that addressed the underlying question in ways no words could.

To complete the catalog of reasons Clinton has a right to be angry, she also has a reasonable case to be irked that Democrats, who have for so long railed about the light treatment George Bush got as a candidate in 2000, are allowing Obama to rise without demanding a more thorough vetting.

The Clinton vs. Obama dynamic hurts John Edwards, who turned in a strong debate performance and was thoroughly on message, as he always is, arguing that he's the only one who can take the fight to corporations. He wants Clinton out of the conversation, if not the race. To that end, Edwards often came to Obama's defense during the debate, criticizing Clinton's attack on Obama's health-care plan. "She wasn't making these attacks when she was ahead," Edwards said. This is a line Obama's staffers are now using to rebut all of Clinton's attacks. Edwards was at such pains to show that he and Obama were similar candidates of change that he nearly called him "my African brother."