Democratic debate: the big night?

Brian Williams wasted no time giving Barack Obama the chance to back up his New York Times interview in which he said it was time to highlight the differences between him and Hillary Clinton. He spotlighted NAFTA, torture and the vote to authorize the war in Iraq and said Clinton has changed her views on those subjects. Obama said that might be politically savvy but that it undermined the ability of the Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Republicans. She responded by saying the Republican candidates don't seem to have gotten the memo that she's voting or sounding like them. And she stressed that she is working to prevent a rush to war in Iran. No question, she came out better in this first exchange.

By the second and third questions, Clinton's voice has gotten a little more strained, which is surprising. She knew exactly what was coming tonight, and yet she sounds put off by the piling-on. Such is the burden of the frontrunner.

Wow. John Edwards takes a shot at Clinton by saying she voted for a resolution that reads as if it was written by the neocons. At a Democratic debate, them's fighting words. Edwards's gloves are off, for real. Obama -- Rocky allusion or no -- has to now decide whether to let Edwards do the dirty work -- but then risk not being part of the night's main storyline.

Obama says America is acting like the weakest country in the world and needs to act like the strongest country in the world. I don't know exactly what that means, but it's at least a decent-sounding line.

Dennis Kucinich proves liberals can run against the media, too.

Clinton says she really is against the war but isn't against the troops. I suspect that sentiment will read better than it sounded.

Edwards vows to get combat troops out of Iraq -- period -- after saying Clinton will not. He's much clearer on the how-to-draw-distinctions thing than Obama is.

Edwards adds: We need to be in "tell-the-truth mode," not primary campaign or general election mode.

Clinton: I intend to end the war in a responsible manner. This is antiwar-lite with a dose of take-your-medicine thrown in. I don't think there is such a thing as a Goldilocks answer on the war -- not too supportive, not too critical, but just right. I think people who have strong feelings on the war want either John McCain or Dennis Kucinich/Ron Paul.

Clinton: The Republicans' obsession with me means they think I'll be an effective president. Or they really want you to be their opponent.

Tim Russert asks about documents from the Clinton White House pertaining to the former first lady's role. She's in no mood to speed the "process."

Obama finally scores a point: This is an example of not turning the page. Government needs to be open. Americans need to know how their money is being spent. Right now, Americans don't feel like their government is working for them. And the reason Republicans are focused on you, Hillary, is because you're the type of politician they're comfortable with.

Edwards makes my point: They want to run against you. Plus he says something about lobbyists. And if you want the status quo, then Senator Clinton is your candidate.

Clinton: The Supreme Court handed the presidency to George Bush. ("Get over it," Antonin Scalia yells across the room.)

Obama, asked about experience, focuses on bringing people together when (other) people said it couldn't be done. Also he's stood up to special interests, passing tough ethics reform. And he opposed the war (when he wasn't a national figure). He gave a better answer on executive experience when we interviewed him and he talked about running an up-from-nothing campaign that's raised money on par with the Clinton machine.

Richardson says the non-Clintons are getting too personal with their criticism. He said the same thing to us this morning at the Monitor. I'm starting to wonder if he's decided there's long-term benefit in defending her from Edwards and Obama.

Joe Biden shows up, one hour in: I'm not running against Sen. Clinton -- I'd love to run against Rudy Giuliani, whose sentences all have three words: a noun, a verb and 9/11. The crowd shows up -- and laughs. Biden says maybe I've been around too long. The MSNBC producers consider whether that means they can cut him off.

One reason Edwards is animated tonight: The NH SEIU just endorsed him.

Obama: We have to talk straight on Social Security. We're all against privatization on this stage. There's a problem, long term, but not a crisis. Best option is to lift the cap on the payroll tax, perhaps with an exemption for the middle class. I'm not fearful to have a debate on this with Rudy. (Rudy isn't fearful either.)

Clinton says she doesn't want to impose a trillion-dollar tax on middle-class families. So much for the politics of hope.

Obama: I trust the American people to know I'm not Osama bin Laden. (The beard is the giveaway.) And I don't care what Mitt Romney says. Or what he says this week. (A Republican campaign other than Romney's just copied that into an email.)

It's 10:25 now, the World Series games were still in the 4th inning or so at this time of night, meaning New Englanders are tired. The 30-second speed round is going to need real zingers to make it through the bleariness now. If Obama doesn't have a good canned line he can reel off, he's going to suffer several days of negative reviews. An Iowa poll with Edwards rising would compound the damage.

Russert brings up Charlie Rangel's mother of all tax reforms (see here and here). Clinton: I don't agree with all the details, and Tim, you can't pin me down on a 4% surtax. I will say bad things about the AMT.

Obama: 10,000-page tax code is loaded with loopholes. He wants to restore fairness for working mothers and seniors. No good canned line on this shelf.

Other live-blog takes on the debate here (from Monitor alum Jenn Skalka) and here.

Comcast just ran an ad aimed at ... the campaigns? Advertise on cable, and we'll help you micro-target (and spend all that money you've raised).

It's too late to make the 11 o'clock news, but Chris Dodd probably made the Hardball recap with his one-on-one with Clinton on illegal immigration and driver's licenses. Edwards noticed and says Clinton just said two opposite things. Obama says me, too: I can't tell if she was for it or against it. Hey, a Hail Mary pass with almost no time on the clock. Still too convoluted for the news highlights about to start, but perhaps worth a late boost in the final versions of the morning newspapers.

Snap bottom line: Edwards made the most "news"; Obama will by and large be faulted for not delivering the goods (and what was up with that Romney Halloween joke?); and Clinton, if uninspiring, did nothing to undermine her look of inevitability as the Democratic nominee. And her non-answer on immigration did nothing to upset the Republican appetite for running against her.

UPDATE: The New York Times has posted video and written transcripts here. The Obama campaign wants you to see this clip, in which pollster Frank Luntz's focus group was very impressed with Obama's performance.