The front-runners get along, almost

How Clinton, Obama and Edwards treated one another in the first Democratic debate.

Published April 27, 2007 12:51AM (EDT)

Pre-debate hype held that the first Democratic debate would be a two-person brawl between front-runners Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama. As it turned out, Clinton and Obama both went out of their way to give each other respect.

The hat tipping began when Obama uttered a common Democratic cliché about Iraq: "What we can't do is expect that we can continue to impose a military solution on what is essentially a political problem."

A moment later, Clinton chimed in: "Well, I think that what Barack said is right. I mean, part of our challenge is to put together the political support throughout the country, particularly within the Republican Party, to join with us to bring an end to this war." Translation: Me and Obama are in this together.

Later on, Obama returned the favor, sort of. "Hillary mentioned earlier, this is going to be a change election," he said. "People are hungry for change. And the question is: Who is going to be the most effective agent for change?" Translation: I will repeat Clinton's comments when they underscore the central message of my campaign.

The more overt front-runner-on-front-runner sniping was left to former Sen. John Edwards, who indirectly criticized both Obama and Clinton. At one point, Edwards explained his plan to repeal some of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to pay for new healthcare benefits. But he didn't stop there. "Rhetoric's not enough. Highfalutin language is not enough," he said, offering a barely veiled knock on Obama. Translation: I used to be known as the eloquent one on the Democratic side, so watch yourself, Obama.

At another point, Edwards was asked whether Clinton should apologize for supporting the war. Edwards took the bait by going after Clinton, without directly going after Clinton. "No, I think that's a question for the conscience of anybody who voted for this war. I mean, Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they've voted the right way. If so, they can support their vote." Translation: I am not going to say that Clinton knows she was wrong.

So for those keeping score at home: Round 1 is over. Obama and Clinton decided to put down their gloves and blow each other calculated kisses. Edwards swung at least twice, scoring minor glancing blows.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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