It begins at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC, and it will be one of two things: the start of Hillary Clinton's historic comeback or her final debate as a candidate for national office. Expectations, for the first time, are higher for Obama. For all the hubbub about Clinton's attacks and graceful exit line in the Texas debate, polls showed that voters think she lost it, badly: Texas voters who watched it swung hard against her. Clinton spent the weekend bashing Obama in Ohio, but today she backed off and her campaign pushed the argument that the media was rooting for her to lose. The goal, I'd guess is to stoke up some anti-Obama questioning from the Russert-Williams moderator tag team.
9:06: Obama softly, so softly shivs Clinton on health care and her critique of his plan: "I dispute it. I think it is inaccurate."
9:08: Man, this is taking a while.
9:10: All this wonking on health care can't be good for Clinton: She has hit this argument in state after state, in (as Obama said) negative mail and robocalls, and the vote of Democrats who care about this has shifted to Obama anyway. She is convinced that her crushing defeat on this issue in 1994 gave her credibility for life. Voters: Less convinced.
9:14: Clinton defends her plan and its mandates: "Imagine if FDR made Social Security voluntary. Imagine if LBJ made Medicare voluntary." Yes, what a terrifying vison of a dystopian Earth-2 she crafts.
9:18: Clinton brings the funny: "If anyone saw Saturday Night Live, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and if he needs another pillow." The crowd is so amused that it stays stone silent. (Does she really want people to wash a show where the guest host recommended Ohio votes for her because "bitches get things done?")
9:20: Woo-whee, here comes the trade restrictionist one-upping! Clinton has "always" been critical of NAFTA (remember when she strapped herself to her husband's desk and refused to let him sign the treaty?) and wants a trade pause.
9:21: Obama awkwardly unleashes some oppo: "When she was… running for the Senate, she said… NAFTA had been… on balance, good for New York and good for America. I disagree."
9:29: Good for Russert, citing trade facts to both candidates and trying to get them admit they're pandering to economic ignorance. Obama turns down the bait.
9:31: If I were Russert I'd hire a bodyguard. He smacks Hillary over the head with her 2000 pledge to create jobs in New York. Clinton responds that she thought Al Gore would win the presidency and create jobs with the force of will and a sword drawn from a stone.
9:34: There is no way, in these Democratic debates, to pin down Obama on his lack of experience. He pivots right to Iraq and fires at Clinton's kneecaps. And he's gotten better at doing so since John Edwards and his "Ahhhhhh was wraaahhng" schtick left the picture, taking up valuable contrasting space.
9:38: Clinton's tightened up her own answer, denying the "he's not ready to be commander-in-chief" soundbite, then kitchen-sinking Obama with everything she's been attacking him on vis-a-vis foreign policy.
9:40: "She was ready to give Bush the authority on day one." There's your soundbite. Goodnight, folks. (Not really. I'll be here for a while.)
9:42: "You can't have a debate with John McCain when you had basically the same position as him… until you started running for president." Hmmm…
9:43: Would Clinton skedaddle from Iraq if the people asked her to? "Absolutely." She makes another unheard-thus-far oppo attack, that Obama hasn't held Afghanistan oversight hearings.
9:45: There's probably not space in a debate to tease out Clinton's real foreign policy differences with Obama. She has the White House's ear; he doesn't. She was extremely Janus-faced about the surge. But she comes off as well as she possibly could talking about her specific (and forgotten) Senate initiatives.
9:54: Any time that video is shown is a bad time for Clinton. Sweet Buddah she sounds awful there. Dean-in-Iowa awful.
10:01: A little probing into Obama's campaign finance doubletalk: "You'll break your word," Russert says, and Obama doesn't disagree. He's right to stay out of the system but he absolutely shifted his position over the past year.
10:04: OK, if I was Russert I'd give Clinton a chance to bat around the public financing ball. Instead he piledrives her on tax returns.
10:08: Huh. Notice how Obama keeps looking away from Russert after each of this "what do you think of this asshole who supports you? When's the last time you shaved your head and drove your car into a bris?" questions.
10:11: I don't think these questions were good for Obama, but Russert packaged them in a friendly way, to let Obama explain his connections away. And he doesn't interrupt them.
10:15: That was surreal, Clinton's attempt to re-link Obama and Farrakhan by pointing out, hey, she's rejected anti-Semites full-out. I can't decide if Obama defused it by making it sound like she was parsing.
10:25: Obama loses the paleolibertarian vote, praising the Clinton administration's Eastern Europe policy, saying he'd handle Putin and his allies the same way.
10:26: Why. In the name of God. Would Clinton bring up Iraq in her closing answer? It's the third or fourth issue on the minds of Ohio voters. It's the issue that Obama owns her own. It's like she threw in the towel, walked into the ring, grabbed it, and threw it again.
10:29: And this is just weird: Obama is taking the long leash the moderates have given him and doing his own version of Clinton's closing answer from the Texas debate.
10:33: He closes weakly. I think he needs occasional bursts of applause to keep his solar panels charged.
MY TAKE: America loses. Obama waffled and swerved and sounded worse than I think he usually sounds. He was saved on the Farrakhan issue only when Clinton went overboard. He was saved on his closing only when Williams asked for another closing. Clinton sounded about the same as she did in Texas. (She hardly challenged him on "his tactics," the focus of her weird Saturday challenge for him to "meet me in Ohio.") Geraghty thinks the moderators sowed doubts among swing voters by asking about things Obama is never asked about. I'm inclined to agree but only if Clinton uses some of those revelations on the trail.