Remember the old adage: Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?

Usually, when anyone learns the latter, it is after quite a few battle scars — the righteous indignation that gives way to a weary realization. And that is just the way that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama looked on Tuesday night, at their first debate since their campaigns ignited a war of words that injected race and gender into the race and threatened to turn the excitement of this year’s election into a bitter fight with no real winner.

So the tone was decidedly conciliatory, sometimes friendly, with no one of the candidates, not even John Edwards, who had the most to gain from this outing, willing to really take each other on and create more acrimony. Had Dennis Kucinich actually been allowed to participate, surely with a strident message intact, they might have just sat back and listened.

“We’re all family in the Democratic party,” Clinton said at one point.

They kept that in mind throughout the evening, what with Obama admitting that his comment to Hillary at the last debate — “You’re likable enough, Hillary” — was a poor choice of words, and Clinton offering Obama the olive branch of co-sponsoring legislation to limit President Bush’s power in Iraq. “I think we can work on this, Hillary,” he said. They even laughed at each other’s jokes.

The problem is that damage might already have been done, as even after a declared truce on Monday, much of talk radio and blog posts were filled with discussions of race and gender. Hollywood donors fear damage to prospects in November. Clinton and Obama blamed much of their more flammable rhetoric on overzealous surrogates, even if they haven’t dropped them from their campaign. Pressed on comments about BET founder Robert Johnson, Clinton refused to say that she would drop him from campaign activity but agreed that his inferences of Obama’s admissions of past drug use were “out of bounds.”

The relentless focus on the issues of race in the debate’s initial half-hour may have been excessive, particularly as the event was billed as a precede to the Nevada caucus. One heckler even said as much, and MSNBC moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams eventually moved on.

About the only major difference came when Clinton denied that some pre-New Hampshire primary remarks were an effort to use terrorism to score political traction, even as Obama said that he believed she was. But the exchange hardly rose to the level of bitterness. In fact, it was dropped rather quickly, as if to keep in the spirit of the evening.

The candidates profess that this will be the shape of things to come, but somehow, it is hard to believe that all will be peace and harmony. As they say all too often, there is too much at stake in this election. When that is the case, it’s just too easy to be right and far more difficult to sit back and be happy.