Two CNN commentators - Bill Bennett and Bill Schneider - argued afterward that because Hillary is the front runner, Barack needed to score a knockdown last night. Since he didn't, they declared it Hillary's night. That is ordinarily a persuasive argument (the night before after the GOP debate, I made a similar argument that heading toward Super Tuesday, Romney needed two touchdowns and came up at best with two field goals - hence game to McCain).
Bennett and Schneider may turn out to be right about last night. But my sense is that the Democratic candidates are in a different place than Republicans. Within the GOP, McCain clearly has the momentum and may be pulling away; that's why Romney badly needed to stop him cold in this week's debate and his failure to do so has left him in peril this coming Tuesday. By contrast, Barack is still behind Hillary but he seems to be closing the gap. (Gallup last night had her national lead down to 4 points; Rasmussen had her California lead down to 3.) Whether Barack can actually surge past her or she will hold him off is the big question mark of the next five days.
Given that environment, I thought Barack was wise not to go on a fierce attack but to demonstrate how effective and winsome he can be in reaching out to someone who opposes him - the very kind of traits he promises to bring to the White House. In a one-on-one, he also did not want to seem sexist toward her. Hillary did extremely well last night on the substance - she remains the best candidate in either party in her grasp of issues. But it is worth remembering that when these debates started, she was pretty much running over him. Barack has gotten steadily better and last night he held his own on the issues - indeed, he got the best of the argument on Iraq.
So, it came out pretty even in my view. Hillary did what she needed to do and there is certainly a plausible argument that if it was a draw, she drew the greatest benefit. But my sense is that as the challenger, Barack also did what he needed to do - he kept the momentum. She is still the favorite on Tuesday, but he is starting to breathe down her neck.
One final point: for Democrats overall, the contrast between the Hillary - Barack last night versus McCain - Romney the prior night should have given them encouragement. McCain has the best chance to win among Republicans, but if you look at his debate performance this week against that of Hillary and Barack, it looks as if he will have his hands very full this fall. To be sure, he was tired on Wednesday and his advisers acknowledge that he had an off time. But Hillary and Barack both showed they will be very tough in the fall debates ahead.
– David Gergen, Senior Political Analyst
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