The debate's ferocity set a new standard for Democratic combativeness.
What America saw tonight was all of the pent up opposition research from Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards spill out on stage as if from a giant, perforated spleen at the Republican National Committee.
Already, Democrats with loyalties in this race and some who remain neutral have fretted to The Bourbon Room that the biggest winner tonight was the likely Republican nominee (Edwards said it would be John McCain). Yet other Democrats found the debate tense but mild when compared to Democratic campaigns of yore.
The debate will test what the campaigns have been unwilling to test on the airwaves -- the effectiveness of direct, personal attacks on each other. Every perceived weakness came under assault and each candidate left the stage more bloodied than he or she arrived.
The debate's greatest contribution was the time alloted for lengthy rebuttal. This gave the debate some of its most sizzling intensity and allowed for dramatic policy contrasts (such as on universal health care, trade and approaches to economic stimulus).
Winners and losers can't be tabulated based solely on the debate performance.
If they could be, Edwards would again emerge as the clear winner. His crisp, passionate specificity again outshone Clinton and Obama. This is undoubtedly the kind of joust Edwards desperately needed in Iowa, where he still had a fighting chance to win the nomination. If this debate happened in Iowa, Edwards could have contrasted himself against the aggressively nagging and negative Obama-Clinton interplay that dominated the first hour of tonight's debate (of course, this kind of debate would never have happened in Iowa which is always why Edwards never actually had a chance in this race).
Sadly for Edwards and his diminishing band of supporters, his performance tonight, while cogent, will probably most be remembered for providing either comedic relief or a welcome respite from the Clinton-Obama sniping. The debate could boost Edwards in South Carolina, but since he's so far behind here it's unlikely to propel him to victory.
The key question, then, is if Edwards rises who suffers? Clinton or Obama? The Bourbon Room surmises the votes will most likely come from Clinton.
And that's not because Obama beat Clinton. I'd call their battle a draw on points. But if Edwards rises as a result of tonight's strong performance, he will more likely take support from Clinton because the arc of the debate highlighted her deep ties to lobbyists, her support for the Iraq war and, in general, the exaggerated criticisms she or her husband have leveled at Obama. Also, on issues where the three did not argue - such as poverty, Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy, and Toni Morrison's musings on the blackness of the Clinton presidency -- Obama and Edwards were more confidently and naturally eloquent. Clinton didn't stumble in these moments, but Obama and Edwards out-performed her.
Obama probably lost ground on health care because "universal" vs. "non-universal" polls off the charts with core Democrats (they want universal and, at bare minimum, the fight to START with the goal of universal coverage).
Clinton probably lost ground on Iraq and the stimulus. On the war, criticizing Obama for voting for war funds doesn't make him a pro-war. Plenty of other anti-war liberals have voted to fund the troops fighting the war. That doesn't make them pro-war. It makes them accountable to powerless volunteers who didn't ask to fight the war, merely to have the equipment to prosecute it as best as they can. On economic stimulus, Clinton was first to unveil a comprehensive plan. But that plan did not highlight tax rebates. Hillary said they were held in reserve to avoid tempting congressional Republicans to reopen that debate over extending the Bush tax cuts. As Hillary must know, that was going to happen anyway. Also, many economists fear her call for a five-year freeze on mortgage loan interest rates will drive up the cost of future mortgages and thereby further delay any rebound in the housing market.
Edwards lost ground on trade and the bankruptcy bill, but since these issues are largely peripheral, the damage was less severe.
In summary, Edwards gained tonight. And since he and Obama sounded more like "change" than Hillary, his rise will probably take more from Clinton on Saturday than from Obama.
Obama held his own in the toe-to-toe fight with Clinton. The underdog, which Obama is nationally, always wins when the favorite hits hard and he doesn't crumble. Also, Obama sounded more high notes among likely African American voters in South Carolina's primary (where their turnout could easily exceed 50 percent) .
Clinton scored points but took several stylistic hits (drawing the occasional boo) and oddly acted as if Obama was more of a threat now than he was in Iowa or New Hampshire. She also appeared uncomfortable defending her husband's recently aggressive line of attack on Obama (no one compares Bill Clinton to Michelle Obama or Elizabeth Edwards in the surrogate wars).
In summary, Edwards gave his candidacy a boost. Obama took Clinton's best shots and survived. Clinton acted as if she hadn't won the last two contests and regained her aura of inevitability and combativeness suits the challenger better than the front-runner.
Net winner by a slim margin: Obama.
Mike Emanuel currently serves as chief congressional correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). He joined FNC in 1997 as a Los Angeles-based correspondent.