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Analysis: Clinton likely didn't slow Obama's momentum

  • Story Highlights
  • Clinton likely did little to blunt Obama's momentum after his 11 straight wins
  • But New York senator had strong moments, on health care and at end of debate
  • Illinois senator was best when framing the debate more about style than policy
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By Bill Schneider
CNN Washington Bureau
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(CNN) -- It was one of Hillary Clinton's last chances to knock rival Barack Obama -- seemingly on a path to the Democratic nomination -- off course.

Sen. Barack Obama has won 11 straight contests against Sen. Hillary Clinton.

But throughout the CNN/Univision debate in Austin, Texas, on Thursday night, the New York senator struck a cautious and, at times, conciliatory tone toward Obama, and likely did little to blunt the momentum of a candidate who has won 11 straight contests.

It wasn't quite the love-fest of the CNN debate in Los Angeles, California, three weeks ago, but Clinton repeatedly shied away from challenging her rival, even when the debate's moderators gave her ample opportunities to do so.

Obama emerged relatively unscathed as a result. It was, by all measures, a victory for the Illinois senator given the clear front-runner status he now holds. Video Watch Schneider break down the debate »

But it was by no means a poor performance for Clinton, and she did successfully draw some contrasts with Obama on his health care stance -- an issue in which she holds the upper hand.

Obama's plan could leave many uninsured, and Clinton effectively stressed this point in one of her strongest moments of the debate. She immediately put Obama on the defensive about his own plan and proved she understands this issue through and through. Video Watch candidates debate health care »

Plus, Clinton clearly ended on a strong note, eloquently responding to the question about a time she had been tested with a reference to her past that drew laughter, and a poignant answer about how her problems pale in comparison to those of average voters.

It was her "Casablanca" moment, reminiscent of the legendary movie's final moment when the protagonist declared, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Debate Replay
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama face each other in Austin, Texas
Saturday, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET

Clinton also ended her answer with her most conciliatory tone toward Obama to date, in a response that seemed to signal for the first time that she felt she might not win her party's nomination.

"You know, no matter what happens in this contest, I am honored. I am honored to be here with Barack Obama," Clinton said. "I am absolutely honored."

The answer received a standing ovation, and it was certainly a memorable moment -- but it's unclear if it did anything more than harden the support she already has.

Most likely, it won't change the dynamic of this race, though the true effect of it will be determined by the media coverage around it: Should it get replayed over and over on television, it just may have an impact on this race and could stand out as the debate's most striking moment.

Obama had several strong moments as well, especially when he raised the issue of Iraq and his early opposition to it. It's a contrast he repeatedly draws with Clinton, who voted for the Iraq war resolution. When Clinton suggested he lacked the experience to be president, Obama effectively cited his early opposition as evidence his judgment is better than hers.

On the whole, Iraq is an issue Obama always does well discussing, drawing upon his strong rhetorical skills to convey the human toll the war has cost and his reasons for opposing it early on. Video Watch candidates debate the "surge" in Iraq »

But Obama's strongest moments came when he was successful in framing the debate more about style than policy.

Clinton has always been a policy wonk, and has proven on more than one occasion that she is more comfortable than Obama discussing the nuances on a host of issues. And on substance, Clinton had the upper hand Thursday night.

Obama aptly steered the debate away from policy differences and more toward his leadership style -- an approach that has repeatedly proven beneficial to him throughout the campaign.

He stressed several times his ability to work across the aisle and to reach consensus with Republicans. It's an argument that usually plays much better in a general election than during primary season. Plus, it offers a sharp contrast with the leadership approach Clinton emphasizes -- a readiness to fight Republicans every step of the way, if necessary.

But this campaign season seems to have proven even the most partisan Democrats are ready for a different kind of politics, an environment that favors Obama's argument over Clinton's.

(At no point was Obama's effort to paint himself as a consensus builder on clearer display than when he raised his past collaboration with Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republican senators and not the most popular figure in Democratic circles).


Both candidates' strong moments aside, Thursday's debate will likely most be remembered for what did not happen.

With her back against the ropes -- and most likely only one primary loss away from the end of her presidential bid -- Clinton simply chose to throw too few punches to clearly counter Obama's increasing strength. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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