YOU KNOW THE WORLD is upside down when Silvio and Bobby hit the dirt and Tony goes into hiding, but Hillary skates away without a scratch.

Certainly, TheSopranos’ penultimate episode Sunday night got a much larger slice of the audience pie than the CNN-hosted debate from New Hampshire that preceded it. Yes, yes, I know it’s still “early on” — as they say — and the actual voters aren’t paying much attention yet. But these sorts of debates, nevertheless, remain important for the sort of media buzz they generate and, in turn, the sort of donor cash-fuel they provide. And with that Superduper Tuesday of February 5 looming large, it’s going to take hundreds of millions to get there.

So here’s my buzz: Hillary, unfortunately, won. Simply because none of her rivals could take her out. And for me, at least, this spells bad news. After eight years of Bush, we deserve something better than warmed-over Hill-Bill obfuscation.

The No. 2 challenger, Barack Obama, was way too consensual in the debate, handling himself as if he’s the one who has a double-digit lead in the polls — which he doesn’t. Obama was quick to sharply rebut and rebuke John Edwards when the former vice-presidential candidate accused him and Hillary of not being straightforward and vocal enough last month when they voted to oppose continued funding of the war. “They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote, but there is a difference between leadership and legislating,” Edwards said in a clear attempt to win the anti-war vote.

Obama’s parry was lightning fast and wholly appropriate (and I say this as someone who really likes Edwards): “John,” Obama said, “the fact is that I opposed this war from the start. So you are about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue.” Too bad Senator Obama didn’t show the same sort of confrontational gumption against front-runner Clinton, to whom, instead, he displayed a rather continuous deference. About halfway through the debate, I got the feeling that Obama was perhaps really running for V.P. rather than for the top job and that he didn’t want to alienate the candidate still most likely to win.

Edwards, currently lagging in third place in most nationwide polls, made a more aggressive attempt than he has in his more muted stabs in past debates, to put Senator Clinton on the spot for her initial 2002 vote authorizing the war in Iraq. But Clinton demonstrated some rather formidable political skills by, well, triangulating her own record on the conflict. Once again, she refused to say, as Edwards has, that she was simply wrong in voting for the authorization of force.

Worse, Clinton did some fanciful rewriting of history, claiming that the 2002 vote for war wasn’t for war but rather for stepped-up diplomacy and the reintroduction of arms inspectors into Iraq. Neither Obama nor Edwards directly challenged that fictional account, even though Sunday’s New York Times carried a lengthy excerpt from the new Hillary political bio, Her Way (by investigative reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.), which puts the lie to Clinton’s version of events. As the authors point out, at the time of that fateful vote, Clinton refused to support the Levin Amendment, which would have specifically made a round of heightened diplomacy a precondition to the use of force. The authors came up with a line that one of Clinton’s rivals could have and, frankly, should have cadged Sunday night to describe her ever-shifting equivocations on Iraq: “Hillary had been against the war before she was for it — before she was against it all over again.”

Clinton did what all front-runners do. She aimed to keep the focus on the opposing party and not on the accusations from her own party rivals. Retreading her Vast Right Wing Conspiracy line of last decade, she tried to fully offload responsibility for the war she voted for by saying it was strictly “George Bush’s war.” Candidates Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich did directly challenge that notion, Gravel by angrily noting that several of the Democrats onstage were co-sponsors of the war’s authorization resolution, and Kucinich by arguing that the mandate given to the Democratic Party in last fall’s election was, precisely, to end the war. Unfortunately, both are third-tier candidates who wield little impact. Let’s hope, however, they can stay in the debates as long as possible to keep up the pressure.

Whatever one’s view of Senator Clinton, one must marvel at her awesome ground-level political agility. She came into Sunday’s debate knowing that Iraq — and her maddening ambiguity on that war — would be front and center. And yet, by even further blurring the issue during the two-hour debate, she exited unscathed. Tony should have such luck next week when he goes mano a mano with Phil Leotardo.

LA Weekly