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Analysis: Debate format straitjackets candidates

  • Story Highlights
  • Little confrontation during last Democratic debate before Iowa caucuses
  • Sen. Hillary Clinton takes subtle dig at Sen. Barack Obama, John Edwards
  • Focus group of undecided Iowa voters says Edwards won debate
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By Rebecca Sinderbrand
CNN Washington bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Few events this campaign season promised to provide more awkward moments than Thursday's Democratic debate, the candidates' final meeting before the caucuses three weeks from now.

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Sen. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards share a light moment during the Democratic debate Thursday.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who are battling it out in Iowa and New Hampshire, shared an Iowa stage just hours after she personally apologized for a statement made by one of her top New Hampshire advisers about Obama's admitted past drug use.

But the afternoon offered even fewer fireworks than the Republican debate on the same stage a day earlier. The format seemed to extinguish any hint of confrontation, and the crowd was missing in action for most of the first half of the debate.

While the Republican and Democratic candidates were playing to different audiences, this week's debates seemed like mirror images. There was very little interaction between the candidates as they used this final event as more of an opportunity to recite stump speeches than directly criticize one another. Video Watch an analysis and highlights of the debate »

For example, when Clinton said she saw flaws in NAFTA -- a trade treaty that is considered by some to be a major accomplishment of husband Bill Clinton's presidential tenure -- moderator Carolyn Washburn turned to Obama, who deftly avoided criticizing either Clinton in his response.

Much like in the GOP debate, the economy -- which now tops the Iraq war as a concern of Democratic voters -- proved to be the focus of much of the discussion.

Democrats had an advantage over their Republican counterparts in at least one sense: Many of the questions were similar or identical to queries posed Wednesday, as if the candidates were students offered a sneak peek at their final exam.

On message, Obama has been a hit with Iowa Democrats looking for change; Clinton's response has been to emphasize experience as the key needed to bring about change. In one of the debate's few contentious moments, Clinton took a subtle swipe at the heart of Obama's case, and at rival John Edwards' "politics of hope."

"Well, everybody on this stage has an idea about how to get change," Clinton said. "Some believe you get change by demanding it. Some believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change. That's what I've done my entire life. That's what I will do as president."

Clinton played to a major campaign asset -- her husband -- by seeding her answers with reminders of his presidential successes. She appeared to address what some say is a campaign weakness -- the perception that she lacks warmth -- by dropping personal references throughout the debate, including mentions of her mother and daughter, who joined her on the Iowa campaign trail this week.

As for Obama, the debate's low-key vibe seemed to play to his strengths. His relatively subdued style was well-suited to the format -- and even in the rare moments when sharp elbows came out, he displayed more confidence than he did in earlier debates this campaign season.

When Washburn asked Obama how he could promise a break from the past when so many of his senior advisers were Clinton administration veterans, Clinton jumped in with a laugh line: "I want to hear that."

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Obama shot back: "Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to having you as an adviser, as well." Video Watch Obama joke with Clinton »

But perhaps the real winner was John Edwards, who has staked his candidacy on a strong showing in Iowa. A CNN focus group of undecided Hawkeye State voters overwhelmingly responded that Edwards came out on top at the end of the 90-minute debate. Many of these voters said he would get their vote if the caucuses were held today. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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