JOHNSTON, IOWA -- Sen. Barack Obama was attempting to answer questions more forthrightly this afternoon. He dealt with the environment, with education, the Iraq War and special interest lobbying. He dropped the professorial elocutions that have turned his debate performances into rather halting and hesitant affairs.
Then just over an hour into the debate, he fielded a question about foreign policy. How, he was asked, can he claim to want to make a fresh break with the past when he has so many Clinton administration foreign affairs advisers on his staff.
To the left of Obama came a very loud, very deep, very hearty guffaw. Unmistakably Hillary Clinton's. Obama retorted: "Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."
In a debate that was without much that was noteworthy save Sen. Clinton's laugh and her repeated references to how wonderful everything was back in the 1990s when guess who was president, all of the candidates were asked to enumerate their New Year's resolutions. Several suggested losing weight would be a good place to start 2008.
But for the rail-thin Obama, this New Year will be a time to be a better father and a better husband and a time to remind himself constantly that this – the campaign – is not about him. Nor will he be timid or distorted by fears of losing as he pursues the campaign.
The final presidential debate before the Iowa caucus brought little fireworks, no petty bickering, just a fairly cordial exchange of ideas.
Candidates spent most of their time discussing the issues and not attacking one another. At one point, however, during her opening statement, Clinton took a subtle jab at Obama and Edwards saying they may offer change based on hope, but she offers change based on experience.
"Everyone wants change. Well, everybody on this stage has an idea on how to get change. Some believe you get change by demanding it, some believe you get it by hoping for it," Clinton said. "I believe you get it by working hard for change. That's what I've done my entire life that's what I will do as President."
The debate ended with a question on their thoughts of Iowa being so important to the process of nominating a presidential candidate. Clinton responded saying she appreciates being able to build "personal relationships" with voters and promised that if she is elected she will never forget the people of Iowa.
Edwards stuck to his message in today's debate. He clung to his favorite themes of Two Americas and fighting the corporate powers that have corrupted American government. In fact, almost every question came back to those themes and how he is the "fighter" to confront these corporate powers. As he has on the stump several times before, he referred to the fight with these corporate interests as "an epic battle." He maintained that achieving his goals as president entirely "depends on winning this battle."
The only slight hint of an attack on Edwards came when Hillary Clinton said, "some people demand change, some people hope for change." The first part of that was a dig at Edwards, while the latter was a dig at Obama. Edwards never answered that jab, then again, he never made any personal jabs at all. It was message, message, message.
In sum, Edwards did not embrace the role of rabble-rouser like he has in previous debates. Instead we saw a much more focused demeanor while continuously knocking home the point: "America needs a fighter to take on the powerful wealthy interests. I will be that fighter."