HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on Thursday night turned their last showdown before Tuesday's coast-to-coast voting into a gentle forum on issues — as well as a tag-team blast at the Republicans one of them will face this fall.
Gone was the bile that characterized their last debate 10 days earlier, when the two Democratic front-runners traded barbs. In its place was a serious, calm tone of measured discussion of such issues as health-care, immigration, and foreign policy.
The turn to civility was dictated by the politics of the day. After their slugfest in Myrtle Beach on Jan. 21, Obama decisively beat Clinton five days later in that state's primary with an upbeat campaign, while Clinton and her husband were criticized for harsh tactics.
Obama's style seems to be working in other ways. The Illinois senator raised a whopping $32 million last month and plans to advertise in 20 of the 22 Democratic states voting Tuesday — only Oklahoma and his home state of Illinois will be excluded — while Clinton is expected to advertise only in 12.
So they both used a measured, even friendly approach Thursday, like two old friends chewing over weighty issues, often smiling at each other, and firmly united behind the proposition that, whatever their differences, they paled beside their differences with Republicans.
"I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign," Obama said at the outset. "I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over."
Clinton returned the compliment. "I as a Democrat fervently hope you are looking at that next president," she said. "Either Barack or I will raise our hand and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States."
Even when they looked like they were about to ignite sparks, Obama and Clinton instantly doused any flickers. At one point Obama noted that Clinton "gave a number of different answers over the course of six weeks" last year about whether she would back drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants.
"Now you know at this point she's got a clear position," he said, "but it took awhile."
But he shied away from driving the point deeper, adding, "The only reason I bring this up is to underscore the fact that this is a difficult political issue."
Clinton replied by noting that Obama had fumbled the question in one debate as well, showing that "this is a difficult issue and both of us have to recognize that it is not something that we easily come to, because we share a lot of the same values."
Clinton listed three major issues where she and Obama had significant disagreements: how to achieve universal health care; how to structure relief to the housing crisis; and how to manage foreign affairs. But she hastened to add: "The differences between Barack and I pale in comparison to the differences that we have with Republicans ... it's really a stark difference."
In case that wasn't clear enough, Clinton smiled and added: "The Republicans were in California debating yesterday, they are more of the same. Neither of us, just by looking at us, you can tell we are not more of the same. We will change the country."
Obama didn't even try to sharpen any differences on health care; instead he politely pointed out, "about 95 percent of our plans are similar."
Both said they'd pay for health-care reform in part by repealing the Bush administration's tax cuts on the wealthy.
"I'm not bashful about it," Obama said.
"Absolutely, absolutely," Clinton agreed.
Clinton deftly parried one potentially ticklish question from a viewer who noted that since she was eligible to vote, there has always been a Bush or a Clinton on the ticket. Every ticket since 1980 has had a family member. How could Clinton possibly be an agent of change?
"It did take a Clinton to clean after the first Bush," she said, "and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush."
The final question said many Democrats see the two of them as a "dream ticket." Would they consider an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket?
"Obviously there's a big difference between those two," Obama answered, to laughter. He praised Clinton but said the primary race has a long way to go, so answering that question at this time would be "premature and presumptuous."
"I happen to agree with everything Barack just said," Clinton said.
It was that kind of debate.