Live-blogging the Vegas debate

Awaiting the start of the debate, let's ponder this thought from Gail Collins in the New York Times: "The only thing harder than unwaffling is being a mean unifier." Translation: Can Hillary Clinton give some straight answers tonight? And can Barack Obama get tough in a way that speaks for itself (as opposed to needing footnotes)?

Incidentally, while the CNN crew is wondering what the candidates will do, the audience is wondering, what will Wolf Blitzer and Co. do -- will he pull a Russert?

First question for Clinton: Do you practice the "politics of parsing"? Nothing doing. Then Obama says we haven't seen straight answers out of Clinton. It took two weeks to get a clear answer out of her about immigration. We need a different kind of politics.

An attack from Clinton: Obama's health care plan leaves out 15 million people, which is about the population of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. (Actually, it's a little more.)

Obama: I do provide universal health care. She thinks the problem is that no one has mandated health care. The problem is people can't afford it.

Clinton: Level with the American people. He does not mandate the kind of coverage that I do.

John Edwards attacks. Clinton calls it mud, straight out of the Republican playbook.

Joe Biden says this sentence for the first time in his life: "Don't make me speak." Then he says the American people aren't concerned with political games. They're worried about keeping their kids safe and paying their mortgages.

My colleagues Lauren Dorgan and Meg Heckman are watching the debate, too. [Click here for the rest of this post.]

Meg: Clinton says she's donning a pantsuit made of asbestos tonight. Doesn't she mean kevlar?

Lauren: Whoa - the dreams of policy wonks and bloodthirsty politicos just came true for a brief moment. Clinton and Obama went mano a mano on health care. She brought it up, saying his plan fails to cover 15 million Americans - which happens to exceed the population of Nevada, South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire (wonder why she chose those states). He threw back, saying that her plan presumes the problem is a lack of a government mandate - but that the real problem is cost. Quick take: No one lost on this one. When Edwards took up his "politics of parsing" line on Clinton, she again took it to health care, noting that he opposed universal health care last time around. I smell a tactic. This crowd is like showtime at the Apollo.

Obama looked lost on immigration. He thinks it's bad that Clinton took two weeks to figure out her position. He had two weeks to prepare for this question, and he doesn't have a clean answer. Unforced error.

Biden gives a good answer on Pakistan, reminding everyone that he spoke to Musharraf before President Bush did. The he apologizes for actually answering a debate question. Blitzer calls on Richardson but first tells us he recently spoke to Benazir Bhutto. Whole lotta namedropping goin' on.

Richardson says, yes, there are times when human rights are even more important than national security. Obama won't say yes or no when asked if he agrees. He says they're complementary.

Lauren: On Pakistan: Was there a question in there, CNN? (Aside from Wolf's "are you worried" that the situation in Pakistan could get worse? Wolf, who isn't worried that Pakistan could get worse?) For all the guff Tim Russert took after the last debate, we miss him. Not to mention those Fox guys. Say what you will about the channel's biases, but those guys know how to run a debate that cuts to it.

Clinton just out-pointed Obama again. Both wanted to show some nuance in their foreign policy. But where he stumbled at the start of his answer to the yes-or-no and then spoke smartly, Clinton started with a clear statement -- that the first job of the president is national security -- and then went on to make more complex points.

Lauren: Wolf redeemed himself by pushing Richardson on whether human rights are more important than U.S. national interests. Richardson says sometimes they are, and then tosses in a Halliburton dig for good measure. That drew applause but will surely draw some controversy.

Jim Geraghty says Richardson just wrecked his shot at being Clinton's running mate.

Quotable Edwards: We will not change this country if we replace corporate Republicans with corporate Democrats.

Clinton gets a "knowing what we know now" question -- about NAFTA, not Iraq. Was Ross Perot right? Her line, "All I can remember is a lot of charts," is actually pretty funny, but I don't think anyone in the live audience remembers. Good thing it wasn't a James Stockdale reference.

Ben Smith noticed that Clinton actually dodged the question.

Let's start speculating: At the last debate, Clinton stumbled, yes, but Obama wasn't spectacular -- this just isn't his best format -- and still the story of the last two weeks has been Clinton's newly discovered vulnerability. So far she's been better tonight, and Obama has stumbled. Does that mean a sudden wave of she-took-a-punch-and-bounced-back stories?

Back to the action: Campbell Brown brings up Bill Clinton and his comments about the boys ganging up on Hillary Clinton. She has a great line: They're not attacking me because I'm a woman. They're attacking me because I'm ahead. For good measure, she throws in a gracious line about Richardson and Obama running campaigns that, like hers, couldn't have been imagined years ago.

Lauren: Ahh, a nuclear question while the candidates stand 90 miles from Yucca Mountain, which Congress has long eyed as the storage spot for nuclear waste. The question: If not in your backyard, whose? Obama says it's not fair for other states to send it to Nevada. Wolf follows up: In the absence of a high-tech solution, then where does it go? Obama gets a medal for the best non-answer of the night. He turned the question into an attack on pessimism, saying to a cheering crowd: "But I'm running for president because I think we can do it!"

Lauren: That Clinton line about the guys beating up on her because she's ahead might sound familiar to New Hampshire folk. I think she rolled it out in our very own Bill Gardner's office after she signed up for the primary ballot.

Time for undecided voters -- i.e. CNN plants, as opposed to campaign plants. The first questioner, whose son served in Iraq, is worried that Bush and the neocons will take us to war in Iran. Biden says the key is not to give the administration any more license to wage war, as happened with the Kyl-Lieberman Senate vote calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Clinton, who voted for that measure, says it is a terrorist organization. Sanctions make sense. Edwards goes for the sound bite with "We've seen this movie before." Obama says it was a mistake for him to miss the vote.

Quotable Dennis Kucinich, asked about being the only person on the stage to vote against the Patriot Act: "That's because I read it." Followed shortly by ... he wants to impeach Bush and Cheney.

Lauren says the Iran question was something of a nightmare for Clinton: A soldier and his mom are worried that he'll be sent to war in Iran. CNN takes it to Clinton, asking if her vote calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization could be the thing that sends him. Clinton says no, but vows to use diplomatic "carrots and sticks" and to start the talks post haste, even if Iran doesn't meet preconditions. Edwards responds with that easy empathy a la Bill Clinton, "God bless you" - and then goes on to say neocons need to be stopped. Obama takes up the diplomacy mantle and brings the debate with Clinton back to an old fight from the summer. He reminds that he's said he'd meet personally with enemy leaders, while she pooh-poohed that vow. "It can't just be envoys," he said.

Richardson gets a lot of applause from the Nevada crowd on immigration. He's against a border fence. He favors leaning on Mexico, starting with telling them to stop giving their people maps showing them where they can cross into the United States.

Lauren: Who knew it was so simple?

After Clinton brings up her scare point that Obama's plan for Social Security amounts to a trillion-dollar tax increase on the middle class, Obama is ready with his answer: He's only taxing the top 6 percent of Americans, not the middle class. He calls her attack the kind of thing he'd expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani.

Ramesh Ponnuru says it's only 6 percent in any one year but more than 20 percent of Americans over the course of their lives.

Lauren: Is this a look at politicking in Nevada, the newbie on the early-state block? There are scads of empty seats stage left! (We got a shot during Obama's talk on Social Security.)

Biden has a litmus test -- two actually -- for a Supreme Court nominee. His first appointment would be a woman. And she would have to say the 14th Amendment guarantees a right to privacy. Richardson and Kucinich say their justices would protect the right to abortion. Clinton says a nominee would have to share her view of privacy, and that goes hand in hand with abortion. Is this the most explicit Democratic presidential candidates have ever been in saying what their judicial nominees must believe? Elections matter.

UPDATE: The Times debate analyzer (video and transcript) is here.