Clinton at debateDemocratic Presidential candidates were supposed to debate each other last night, but for much of the evening, I thought the battle was between Hillary Clinton and the reporters CNN chose to help Wolf Blitzer read the indictments ask questions.

That contest wasn’t even close: Hillary won, while CNN made itself look worse than Tim Russert, which I didn’t think was possible.

In the headline event, Clinton proved once again why she’s a formidable candidate. Her two closest challengers may have lost their edge, while three second tier candidates — Biden (foreign policy expertise), Dodd (education and constitutional issues), and Kucinich (got it right the first time) — did well. It proved once again this group of Democrats makes the party look good, and that what the Party needs is a composite of the knowledge, wisdom, and foresight their candidates have to offer.

From the opening question, it seemed CNN had planned the evening as an opportunity to take down Hillary Clinton, with anti-Clinton talking points assumed as proven facts and then embedded in questions. Campbell Brown opened by asking Clinton why she “stumbled” so badly in the last debate, and that was followed by a question to Obama that was premised on why Clinton is so triangulating. Then we had questions on the Bill’s “boys” and the “gender card” and the obligatory Lou Dobbs demogoguery on drivers’ licenses for immigrants. That was followed by John Roberts, whose questions — “what about the awful teachers’ unions?” and “Isn’t Petraeus swell?” — illustrated why he’s known as a blatant Republican shill. Was that really “the best team on television?”

If CNN had a plan to discredit Clinton, it failed, instead allowing Clinton to prove again how well she can fend off the media assumptions while going toe-to-toe with opponents. I suspect Republicans, who might have had glimmers of hope watching the cable commentariat belittle Clinton “gaffes” for two weeks, are much more worried after last night.

It didn’t take long for the audience to impose its own rules, booing any candidate who seemed to make gratuitous personal attacks on others. After that, Edward’s continued efforts to imply Clinton is as personally corrupt as the system they all swim in probably didn’t help him with those not already in his camp.

I’m not sure when Obama and Edwards realized that attacking Clinton might be a two-edged sword, but her first counter to them on health care should have signaled the risks. When she was done, Obama had left out universal health care for the first four primary states, and Edwards was reduced to a johnnie-come-lately to the cause of universal coverage. Surely they must have known they’re facing one of the most disciplined, intelligent and prepared candidates they’ve ever seen. If they thought she would just stand there and take another beating, they were quickly proven wrong, and the fireworks ended early.

I was left wondering what happened to the much touted promise of Obama’s Iowa speech. Pundits and supporters have been reading much into the symbolism of his campaign, even to the point of suggesting his election would send a powerful message of possible reconciliation with the Muslim world. Whatever the Obama promise means — and I think its meaning is more in the hopes of his beholders than what he’s actually saying — I couldn’t find it last night.

Clinton remains most vulnerable on her Iraq and Iran votes, and she was challenged several times. Biden made a strong case against Kyl-Lieberman, while Obama added the point of explaining how that amendment might even be used as a pretext for remaining longer in Iraq. She gave her standard response, and while it doesn’t satisfy me, she’s been careful in her Iran/Iraq responses to keep Bush and Cheney as the targets; her answer has picked up her opponents’ points about using diplomatic leverage to prevent another war. It may be enough.

At the end of the debate, CNN’s post-debate analysts (ignoring Carville, a supporter to begin with) concluded that Clinton had come out ahead: she not only out-debated Obama and Edwards, she kept the crowd [and did it while fending off CNN's worst]. Just as important, all the previous claims about “gaffes” and poor debate performance were squashed. Even for an uncommitted skeptic, it was impressive.

If anyone else gained, it was the Dodd, Biden and “always right” Kucinich, and to the audience’ credit, their catcalls kept demanding these other candidates get speaking time. Dodd further helped his cause by answering an Hispanic audience member in Spanish [looking for a translation] on immigration, a sequence that probably has CNN’s anti-immigrant bully Lou Dobbs fuming. Biden showcased his expertise and experience, particularly on Pakistan.

Some questions the media should be asking itself this morning:

– Did the Beltway pundits just waste three weeks talking about inconsequential “gaffes” and “stumbles”? Because I don’t think those topics survived last night.

– How many opportunities do you want to give Hillary to speak to women about the meaning of her candidacy? Because I’ll bet she’s more than happy to do that. How’s that anti-gender card talking point working?

– How much did we learn about the candidates’ positions on key issues? For example, how many questions did CNN ask about the candidates’ plans for climate change? Oil dependence? Paying for Bush’s wars? Reversing the trade deficit? Tax reform? Models for health care? Torture? Mukasey? Illegal spying? Immunity for telecoms who helped the government spy on their customers? I’ll make it easy: zero, so the candidates had to sneak in answers anyway.

– Did you notice that every time CNN asked about the Administration’s failures, (1) the Dems had solutions and (2) their answers won huge applause and (3) impeachment is popular?

– And other than John Roberts, who has no business moderating a debate, was there any other angry bitch on the stage? Because I didn’t see one.

Update: The NYT has a helpful link to the videos and transcripts for each segment of the debate.

Photo at Nevada Democratic debate: AP/Jae C. Hong