Obama and Clinton Debate in Cleveland: No Pain, No Gain

| Wed Feb. 27, 2008 1:40 AM EST

If the political winds in Ohio and Texas are blowing in Barack Obama's favor—and polls in each state show Obama gaining strength—Hillary Clinton did little during Tuesday night's debate in Cleveland to change the weather.

With a week to go before primaries in those important states, this debate was much a repeat of last Thursday's face-off. The two remaining Democratic candidates once again got hot and bothered over the issue of health care insurance mandates. But neither had anything new to say. The Clinton campaign has been pounding Obama for weeks on this front, but the wonky issue has not provided her any traction. And after 16 minutes of grueling back and forth—much of which was devoted to each candidate insisting that unnamed experts had pronounced his or her plan the best—Clinton did not achieve any breakthrough. She claimed the difference between their two health care proposals—she's for a comprehensive mandate that would force all Americans to purchase health insurance; he's for a limited mandate covering insurance for kids—is the defining issue of the Democratic presidential contest. His response: not really. He minimized the gap between their plans. And it's hard for a candidate to have a battle royale with a foe who deftly maintains, we ain't got that big of a dispute here, let's move on. By now it should be clear: mandates are not going to save Hillary Clinton.

The other big squabble of the night came right after the mandates mudwrestle, and it focused on NAFTA, which has emerged as an issue in the past week, with Clinton and Obama competing for blue-collar Democratic voters in Ohio. As part of this tussle, Clinton has in recent days complained that Obama has unfairly tarred her as a flip-flopper on NAFTA. (Her current position: the trade accord is flawed, needs to be renegotiated, and there should be a time-out in negotiating similar treaties.) At the debate, she declared that she's been a critic of NAFTA "from the very beginning." Obama called her out on this—and simultaneously, his campaign sent reporters a link to a YouTube video in which she praises NAFTA. (Obama's campaign website conveniently features a list of Clinton's pro-NAFTA remarks over the years.)

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