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T1home2112obamahillgi Midday on Monday, at an appearance in Westwood before a group of interested politicos called the Luncheon Society, Michael Dukakis was asked about the prospects of a Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama ticket.

Dukakis, who two decades ago was on his own quest for the White House, said to us in the group, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

He didn’t elaborate — nor did he need to.

The Democratic Presidential Debate, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and covered by CNN, looked to be another exercise in fence-mending, after Clinton, Obama and John Edwards had appeared together at Martin Luther King ceremonies in Columbia, S.C. Instead, it was a free-for-all, easily the most contentious and bitter debates so far in this cycle, and one that had you wondering whether Clinton and Obama would ever want to be in the same room together. You knew it was bad when at one point, as Wolf Blitzer tried to put a stop of one of their exchanges, Clinton interjected, “We’re just getting warmed up.”

There was no doubt that the man at the center of the tension was Bill Clinton, who has answered his general irritation at the Obama campaign with  over-the-top remarks or another dose of relentless campaigning, most recently on display at Saturday’s Nevada caucus when he all but followed voters into the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas where they were getting ready to convene. He was nowhere to be seen during this debate — he was giving a campaign speech for his wife in Nashville, carried on CNN.com during breaks.

“I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” Obama said, a bit frustrated.

Hillary Clinton, however, got her own chance to vent. “Well, you know, Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.”

Perhaps wary of the increasingly bitter battle between the two Democratic candidates, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stated, “It is important that we focus on substantive issues.” Hey, he tried. CNN’s team did ask questions about the economy, health care and poverty — in contrast to the MSNBC debate last week, where Tim Russert and Brian Williams spent so much time on the campaigns’ flashpoints of race issues that a heckler in the audience called them to move on to something else.

But it was as if each campaigns stockpile of opposition research on the other had simmered over, and it finally had to be released beyond the occasional backgrounders to political media.

They each may have scored points in some tactical way, but it’s hard to see where they made themselves more appealing. Obama was defensive and rattled, a contrast to his superb speech of unity and hope at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday. “While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.” Clinton found her more personal “voice” in New Hampshire, but what we saw on display at the debate was hard and shrill. “I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Resco, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.” It declined from there, into legislative technicalities beyond the understanding of most viewers.

Anyone who hasn’t been following this race closely, very closely, probably would wonder why they were arguing what Obama said or didn’t say about Ronald Reagan and the Republican “party of ideas.” In fact, if you look at what Obama did say, it certainly isn’t what Clinton said he said. But Clinton said that she didn’t say what he says that she said.

Got it?

That naturally left John Edwards, who would have won just by uttering one answer. “On behalf of voters here in South Carolina, this kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get health care? How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?”

It made for compelling television — what one commenter to CNN called a political version of the surging “American Gladiators” on NBC. Others used metaphors all related to prize fights and sports championships.

Only in the second part of the debate, when all of the candidates were told to sit, did things calm down. In fact, they cooled so considerably that you started to wonder whether it was all an act, and these were actors ready to comment on their performances.

Clinton said, “We have differences, but it would be unbecoming of any of us to not share those differences and to make the points we’re making because we are competing for the most important job in the world at a time when our country has been disgraced abroad, when we have denied and ignored the problems that are afflicting people in South Carolina and across America, when we know we will inherit a huge amount of damage from President Bush upon taking office on January 20th, 2009, whoever the next president is.”

Graciously put.

Asked whether Bill Clinton was what Toni Morrison called him — “our first black president” — Obama said, “I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community, and still does. And I think that’s well earned.”

Then he added, almost smiling, “I have to say that, you know, I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities.”

The audience laughed.

Hillary Clinton answered, “Well, I’m sure that can be arranged.”

Anything more than a dance? Party veterans think it’s looking very doubtful.