The vibe was heavy at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood on Thursday night, and an always blood-thirsty press didn’t imagine it into existence. With U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debating one-on-one for the first time in a long campaign season to decide who would be the next Democratic presidential nominee, the tensions hovering above Hollywood Boulevard between Highland and Orange avenues were obvious and real, and the voting public felt it.
At the front entrance of the Kodak Theater, an hour before the much-anticipated showdown, Obama and Clinton supporters were shouting down each other, elbowing their rivals for better position in front of roving television camera crews, and sneering at any poster, T-shirt, or button that didn’t plug their favorite candidate. Passions were high, and the break out of a minor scuffle seemed entirely possible.
Obama was keenly aware of the edgy vibrations, and, in his opening remarks, seemed to make a point to temper it. “I also want to note,” he told the celebrity-laden audience inside the theater, “I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign; I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over.”
Clinton appeared to be caught off guard by Obama’s friendly overture, mustering up an awkward and weirdly timed reply. “On January 20, 2009, the next president of the United States will be sworn in on the steps of the Capitol,” the New York senator said. “I, as a Democrat, fervently hope you are looking at that next president.” Clinton paused for a few beats, knowing the attention of the theater was solely focused on her. Some people started clapping, taking the bait that Clinton was referring to herself as “that next president.” Then she finally added, “Either Barack or I will raise our hand and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States.”
And so went the rest of the debate, which, if nothing else, became a surprising, maybe even important, two-hour lesson in the ways of civil public discourse, presented by two politicians who carry a super human desire to live in the White House.
The contentious dynamic between Obama and Clinton, which had grown increasingly intense during the South Carolina primary, was ramped up after former U.S. Senator John Edwards dropped out of the race on Wednesday. The third wheel was gone, and Clinton and Obama were now completely free to show soft and undecided voters their true differences.
For the first half-hour of the debate, Obama and Clinton shied away from making any hard-core distinctions, talking similar language about better health care and ending tax breaks for corporate America. It was, though, a prime opportunity for Obama to reveal his policy wonk side—something Clinton often suggests isn’t there.
Obama's inner wonk came through when he talked about immigration, citing the need for a “pathway for citizenship” for illegal immigrants already in the country and his support of giving them driver’s licenses.
“We should not use immigration as a tactic to divide,” he summed up. “Instead, we should pull the country together to get this economy back on track. That’s what I intend to do as president of the United States of America.”
When the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants was put to Clinton—the senator is against the idea—she performed a linguistic shimmy right around it. Obama stayed quiet, but longtime CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer was tired of the niceties and asked Clinton if she was “missing in action” on immigration reform. Clinton smiled and said, “Well, actually, I co-sponsored comprehensive immigration reform in 2004 before Barack came to the Senate.”
It was a line that cajoled big cheers from her supporters within the audience, which may have prompted Obama to finally take a jab at Clinton. “The only point I would make is Senator Clinton gave a number of different answers over the course of six weeks on this (immigration) issue, and that did appear political.”
But even then, the jab was pulled when Obama added, “And the only reason I bring that up is to underscore the fact that this is a difficult political issue.”
Obama, once again, seemed supremely aware of the tensions between him and Clinton and refused to come across as a glib bully. The only joke he was going to make at the expense of someone was a Republican. Which he did, when he quipped: “Mitt Romney hasn’t gotten a very good return on his financial investment during this presidential campaign.” People laughed, even Clinton.
Wolf Blitzer tried his best to stir things up—“Senator Clinton that was a clear swipe at you,” he interjected at one point—but Clinton wouldn’t bite.
“Really?” she replied with a coy smile. “We’re having such a good time. We are. We are. We’re having a wonderful time.”
“Yes, absolutely,” Obama chimed in.
By the end of the night, even Blitzer hopped aboard the good ship lollipop, asking the candidates if they would run together as a “dream ticket.” Obama said such a decision was “premature,” and Clinton promised a “unified” party. Blitzer then said good night, the audience rose to their feet for a standing ovation, and Obama and Clinton hugged each other. The embrace may have actually been genuine.