Before a crowd of celebrities, industry donors and politicos, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama engaged in their final encounter before Super Tuesday in a Hollywood debate where substance often trumped style.
Sure, there was a carnival atmosphere outside the Kodak Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where the usual assortment of costumed superheroes and characters wore campaign buttons, and some in the audience were decked in gowns and high heels, as if it were Oscar night.
In the audience were Stevie Wonder, Steven Spielberg, Pierce Brosnan, Diane Keaton, Rob Reiner, Leonardo DiCaprio, Garry Shandling, Bradley Whitford and Sherry Lansing, among others.
Just about everyone who entered the theater viewed it as a sense of history, not just because the possible first female president was facing off against the first African American president, but because their hard fought battle for the nomination had so much riding on this evening.
But the debate between the two candidates was civil, and extensive time was devoted to the differences between the two candidates on health care, immigration, the mortgage crisis and, of course, Iraq.
One contention was on their various plans to get out of Iraq. Obama has said that he would get troops out in 16 months after the inauguration, but Clinton has not set a specific end date.
“I’ve been very clear in saying that I will begin to withdraw troops in 60 days,” Clinton said. “I believe that it will take me one to two brigades a month, depending on how many troops we have there, and that nearly all of them should be out within a year. It is imperative, though, that we actually plan and execute this right.”
Obama, however, argued that a specific plan is needed to send a message to the Iraqi government. “It can’t be muddy. It can’t be fuzzy,” he said. “They’ve got to know we are serious about the process. And I also think we’ve got to be very clear about what our mission is.”
But their tiffs were over the issues, right down to nuance, compared to the past debate, when each candidate came prepared with a collection of opposition research on the other.
In fact, given the body language of the candidates, you’d wonder what all of the fuss was about over the past two weeks, and whether there ever was any kind of bitterness.
Obama, accused of snubbing Clinton earlier this week at the State of the Union address, at times guided Clinton to her chair on stage, and appeared to laugh together with her at the end. By the same token, when Wolf Blitzer noted that Obama had made a veiled swipe at Clinton’s record on Iraq and Iran, the New York senator didn’t take the bait.
“Really?” she said, in a bit of irreverence. “We’re having a wonderful time.”
While issues dominated much of the forum, and perhaps helped tamp down the fireworks, the debate touched on the underlying difference between both campaigns — change vs. experience.
Clinton drew the biggest applause of the night when she was asked about why voters should continue the Bush-Clinton dynasty.
“You know, it did take a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush,” she said.
Yet unintended laughs came in the form of one of Blitzer’s questions, about the Clinton years of the ’90s. “Should they be remembering those eight years with pleasure?” Perhaps “pleasure” wasn’t the right choice of words.
Blitzer also got some boos when he asked Clinton whether she was “naive” in trusting President Bush in authorizing the use of force in Iraq.
“Nice try, Wolf,” Clinton said, before going into a lengthy explanation of her vote, including “legitimate concerns” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The heavy industry presence apparently inspired a question to Obama about sex and violence on TV. While concerned about it, he said, “I reject the notion of censorship as an approach to solving this problem.” He did call on industry executives to limit the marketing of violent movies when children are watching.
Obama and Clinton sat together at a three-person desk with just two chairs — the empty spot having been for John Edwards, who dropped out on Wednesday. On this night, he wasn’t going for style or substance, but sports. He was attending a college basketball game.