It was supposed to be the night Barack Obama took Hillary Clinton down.
But, when all was said and done, Obama was a bystander.
The opening question in Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate was a softball pitch from NBC's Brian Williams to the senator from Illinois. Noting Obama's interview in the Sunday New York Times, in which the senator from Illinois promised to get tough with Clinton for acting like a Republican, Williams asked him detail the votes and statements from Clinton to which he objected.
Obama should have been ready to knock that one out of the park. Instead, he swung and missed.
"Some of this stuff gets over-hyped," said Obama, who then tried to tell a boxing joke before rambling on about his support for "big meaningful change."
Finally, the Illinoisan suggested that Clinton had flip-flopped on trade, torture and Iraq -- moving in each case from bad positions to better ones -- while admitting that her evolutions might have been "politically savvy."
Asked for a rebuttal, the frontrunner seized the opening, noted the many attacks on her by GOP presidential candidates and then delivered a classic debate one-liner: "I don't think the Republicans got the message that I'm voting and sounding like them."
Were it left to Obama, Clinton would not only have escaped the night unscathed, she might actually have come out ahead.
But this is a multi-candidate race. Where Obama was unfocused and ineffectual, John Edwards landed plenty of blows. The former senator from North Carolina began by suggesting that "it's fair" to talk about essential differences between the candidates. Then he highlighted a big one. "(Clinton) says she'll stand up to George Bush," argued Edwards. "In fact, she voted to give George W. Bush the first step to war on Iran..."
Ouch! That reference to Clinton's vote in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which read an awfully lot like a signal to Bush that he has congressional support for an attack on attack Iraq, opened up a highly engaged discussion that saw several of the candidates, led by Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd -- saying in reference to Clinton's vote of five years ago to authorize Bush to attack Iraq: "What you didn't learn by 2002, you should have learned by now" -- aggressively question Clinton's judgement. It was a smart, at times intense dialogue. Kucinich even got in a call for impeaching Bush and Cheney in order to restore the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches on questions of war-making.
But Edwards owned the moment. Accusing Clinton of voting for an Iran resolution that read like it was "written literally by the neo-cons," the 2004 vice presidential nominee declared, "We need to stand up to this president. We need to make it absolutely clear that we will not let Bush, Cheney and this administration invade Iran."
Edwards was identifying himself "as the clear, sharp alternative," observed NBC commentator Domenico Montanaro. "This is wedging going on. (Edwards) might be elbowing Obama out of the way on this issue. (Obama's), albeit reasonable, but tepid answer on this, just wasn't grabbing the spotlight."
"In the competition to see who would be the sharpest Clinton attacker, Edwards won by far," said Newsweek's Howard Fineman, referring to the North Carolinian's reference to Clinton and the neo-cons.
It wasn't just a fight about Iran, however. Edwards hit hard, and effectively, on every front. After detailing the front-runner's contributions from defense contractors and other corporate interests, he said. "If people want the status quo, Senator Clinton's your candidate."
That's tough talk. Blunt talk. The sort of talk that Barack Obama seemed to suggest that he was going to deliver Tuesday night.
But it came from John Edwards, who ended the night as the candidate who had done the best job of defining himself as the alternative to Hillary Clinton.