After 19 debates between eight Democratic presidential candidates, then seven, then six, then four, then two, it is easy enough to think that there is nothing left to be said by the remaining contenders: Illinois Senate Barack Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton.
In fact, what is said during tonight’s debate at Cleveland State University is likely to matter more than what was said at all the debates that came before it.
No matter what words are used, no matter how messages are delivered, no matter who gives the evil eye or the warm pat on the back to who, it will have meaning.
That’s because the 20th debate could be the last in this marathon race for the Democratic nomination.
There is no question that Obama is surging. He has won 11 primary and caucus contests since Super Tuesday, the last voting day on which Clinton or her increasingly dispirited campaign team could claim anything akin to bragging rights. Obama now leads in commitments from pledged delegates – those chosen by the voters – and is rapidly closing the gap among uncommitted “super-delegates.” He has a 3-1 fund-raising advantage. He has just secured many of the most coveted union endorsements – from the Service Employees, the Teamsters and their Change-to-Win coalition – and his new backers are already spending freely on his behalf. Newspaper editorial pages in Ohio and Texas – which will hold critical primaries on March 4 – are busily outlining reasons to vote for the Illinoisan. And it is certainly reasonable to suggest that Obama is positioned to secure the majority of delegates chosen on March 4; he’s pulling close or ahead in Ohio and Texas and even if he were to lose by narrow margins in those states, he’s likely to win very big in at least one other state that will be voting that day, Vermont. Then there are the new national polls that show the Illinois senator opening a wide lead over Clinton among Democrats – 54-38 in the fresh New York Times/CBS News survey, with a tie among women and a better than 2-1 advantage among men – and running stronger than his rival in mock-ups of a fall contest with Republican John McCain.
And what of Clinton?
Husband Bill, who has proven to be about as useful to Hillary Clinton prospects in 2008 as former Florida Congressman Mark Foley was to House Republicans in 2006, has as much as said that he can’t see his wife continuing as a serious contestant if she fails the Ohio and Texas tests. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Clinton campaign is veering wildly from conciliatory language, like the candidate’s “I am honored to be here with Barack Obama” close of last week’s debate in Austin, and body blows, like Clinton’s Saturday suggestion that the Obama camp is borrowing tactics from arch-Republican Karl Rove.