Obama, Clinton nail their parts

Times Staff Writer

Forget Super Tuesday for the moment, my political couch potato friends. The delegate jackpot divvy will be here soon enough. In the meantime, there's something else to consider about Thursday's California Democratic presidential debate at the Kodak Theatre: The candidates' road show finally made it to Hollywood, providing the glitziest of venues for the two superstars to remind us that there's no business like show business.

No, it didn't turn out to be "the most historic debate of our generation," as it was touted by politicos before airtime. But after barnstorming through the provinces, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived at the entertainment capital like starlets yearning for multi-picture deals. And as determined as they are magnetic, they shared the stage not just in any one of the city's cavernous concert halls but at the permanent home of the Oscars.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer, mind you, is no Billy Crystal. (He'd be better as the guy who explains the academy's rules and procedures.) Still, the evening didn't disappoint. Although the squabbling was written out of the script, the drama was implicit: Who could be more convincing as the new star of the "West Wing" reality series?

Obama is the far better Method actor of the two. Which is to say there's less of a visible gap between the role he's playing and the self he has freely exposed since he became a marquee draw. He connects with crowds -- he rouses -- through his comfort in his own skin and story. His past is complicated, but from that complexity he's discovered the power of honest reckoning and straightforward emotion. He's a natural performer. Clinton you can imagine rehearsing her lines in front of the bathroom mirror.

Her advantage is that she knows her text inside out. She's like one of those actors -- Maggie Smith is reported to be one -- who are always studying backstage, underlining and dog-earing their script. Professionalism goes a long way in the theater. (Nothing wearies a director more than "temperament.") And in politics too, there's something noble about a candidate who can reel out bullet-point answers on any topic, no matter how insufferably boring or obscure.

Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau chief Doyle McManus -- who, along with Jeanne Cummings, senior correspondent for Politico, joined Blitzer in moderating the face-off sponsored by their three news organizations -- started by asking the candidates to explain to everyone once and for all what their major policy differences were. These distinctions, too nuanced to hold the attention of remote-control quick-draws, have been shunted aside by the tabloid-driven media for more pressing "character" concerns.

This is where Clinton dominated the spotlight, turning in a tour de force of bureaucratic competence that left Obama seeming like, to filch a line from Shakespeare, a "green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance."

Clearly Clinton could have danced all night to the tune of universal health care, but CNN wasn't choreographing the show around her strengths. If anything, the network was employing a strategy familiar to mothers of finicky kids: Make them eat the vegetable first before bringing out the cake and ice cream.

Dramatic differences on tax policy and the role of government will have to wait for the general campaign. At this point, the Democratic primary contest remains a theatrical battle of impressions and counterimpressions, and the cameras were poised to pounce on anything unflattering. Unfortunately for CNN, the candidates weren't about to botch their big close-ups.

Obama may not be as virtuosic as Clinton in flaunting minutiae, but he was savvy enough to know how important it was for him play the gentleman's role and pull back her chair each time she sat down, after he reportedly "snubbed" her before the president's State of the Union address Monday. He was also adept at portraying himself as his party's most popular figure, sneaking the name "Kennedy" in as often as possible to capitalize on his recent endorsements.

Clinton, burned by her blowup in the South Carolina debate, knew just how to laugh off Blitzer when he baitingly asked if she now considers her Iraq war resolution vote "naive." (Hey, where was Blitzer's tough questioning in 2002?) Throughout much of the debate, she wore a smile that suggested what she might be like hanging around the kitchen with Chelsea, sipping coffee and dispensing motherly advice on bad bosses and worse boyfriends. She was as beamy as Diane Keaton -- who happened to be in the Kodak audience and who was all radiant in a white ensemble and whimsical hat.

You could call the whole evening a family affair. In fact, the differences between the two candidates emerged with such tranquillity that Peter, Paul and Mary could have set some of the exchanges to music.

But as welcome as civility is for patching up a fracturing base, it's poison for a soap opera. Alarm bells must have gone off in the head of one of the backstage producers, because after a strong early showing by Clinton, the questions for her became noticeably more barbed. There was the inevitable inquiry about doghouse-bound Bill. Basically, if you can't control what your husband says during the campaign, how are you going to contain him when he's in the White House? And earlier, an e-mail from a 38-year-old woman from South Carolina complained that she has never had the opportunity to vote in a presidential election free of a Bush or Clinton

Clinton scored the loudest hurrahs of the evening when she retorted that it took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, and it might take another one to clean up after the second. For an instant, she connected with the crowd not through her superior knowledge but through her crack comic timing.

It's imperative (to borrow Clinton's favorite word of the night) that candidates seem likable. Revealing vulnerability -- the inability to string words together grammatically, to take an example from election cycles past -- can sometimes be very effective.

But Clinton is eminently well-spoken, and there are only so many times a future commander in chief can let voters in by choking up. Humor is a good fallback for her, and she has a knack for it.

Obama was too busy acting gallant to spoil her moment. He had his star turns too, most notably when the subject turned to Iraq and his clarity and unbeholden judgment were allowed to shine.

But how the two could help each other's acts! Clinton's bright and eager readiness and Obama's authentic hopefulness would be a formidable combination, which is probably why Blitzer couldn't resist floating the idea of a Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket.

Talk about plot reversals. Wasn't it just yesterday that they were at each other's throats?

Democrats are sobering up to the reality that as groundbreaking as it will be to have a woman or an African American man heading their ticket, a white male Republican waits in the wings. This once-heated domestic drama, in other words, is bound to give way to old-fashioned partisan melodrama.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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