CLEVELAND — After 20 debates, Barack Obama now can say he's able to hold his own onstage with Hillary Clinton.
Cool and crisp in a 90-minute showdown Tuesday night in Ohio, he answered her charges with countercharges of his own. He spoke in the quick sound bites that the format demands.
When Clinton sensed that she could box him into a corner on support for Israel — by questioning how strongly he rejected an endorsement by Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan, a virulent anti-Semite — he realized it quickly and got out. And, in a bow to the old politics he claims to abhor, he glossed over the truth about his campaign's misleading accusations about Clinton and her campaign.
In short, he's become a better politician.
"He's a more experienced candidate now," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "He was a neophyte. He hadn't been out there. But there is a learning curve. And he's learned."
She's been good at debates since the first one: fast on her feet, in command of the facts, able to draw on her deep knowledge of issues such as health care. With the exception of an October debate, when she stumbled badly on whether to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, she's almost always been in command of the format.
Yet now she's trailing the younger, less experienced Obama in the drive for the nomination, and she needed to knock him off his stride in this last debate before make-or-break primaries next Tuesday in Ohio and Texas.
The fact that he was able to fight her to a draw in a pivotal face-off is evidence of how much he's grown as a debater since he first faced her 10 months ago in Orangeburg, S.C.
"It used to take him 60 seconds just to clear his throat. He struggled with constructing and constraining his answers," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director.
"I don't think there's any doubt he's gotten better."
Consider his tentative, even stumbling performance when he made his debate debut last April 26 alongside Clinton and other rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Asked how he'd respond to a terrorist attack, Obama said, "the first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans."
Asked to name America's three most important allies, he mentioned the European Union, NATO, Afghanistan and Japan.
Prodded by the moderator as to why he didn't mention U.S. ally Israel and about his own comments on the suffering of the Palestinians — a combination that could hurt him with Jewish voters — he gave a rambling answer until he ran out of time.
Contrast that with this week's performance.
When Clinton complained that Obama's campaign literature falsely accuses her of calling the North American Free Trade Agreement a "boon" to the economy — fighting words in a state that blames trade for lost jobs — he never responded directly.
He again faced a rhetorical test that might have hurt his standing with Jewish voters, but he saw the trap this time and got out of it.
When he was asked about Farrakhan endorsing him, Obama said he didn't court the endorsement and didn't welcome it, and that he'd denounced Farrakhan repeatedly.
Clinton sensed an opening, though, and tried to make it seem as if Obama's denouncement were too weak a condemnation.
She said that she'd rejected support from an anti-Semitic group in her 2000 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from New York. "There's a difference between denouncing and rejecting," she said. "We've got to be even stronger."
Obama adjusted quickly, dismissing Clinton's gambit in a tight answer that made her complaint seem silly.
"I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting," Obama said. "There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word `reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word `denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."
Said Clinton, "Good. Good. Excellent."