What happened
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama clashed Wednesday in a tense debate in which Clinton continued sharp attacks she has used on the campaign trail. Obama spent much of the night on the defensive, parrying both Clinton’s claims that his record and views make him the easier mark for Republicans, and vigorous questioning by ABC News moderators about everything from his former pastor, to his reluctance to wear an American flag pin on his lapel, and his association in Chicago with former 1960s radicals. (The New York Times, free registration) Clinton also had to revisit her misrepresentation of her visit to Bosnia as first lady in a grim encounter that focused on the electability and the political weaknesses of both candidates. (The Philadelphia Inquirer, free registration)

What the commentators said
Clinton really clobbered Obama this time, said Jim Geraghty in the National Review’s The Campaign Spot blog. “She tore into Obama on all of his weak spots. Relentlessly.” It was "like watching a linebacker perfectly execute a blitz and flatten a quarterback from the blind side.” She kept the examination of his “cling” comments to suggest Obama doesn’t understand the role of religion in people’s lives, and “twisted the knife” by bringing up his former pastor’s offensive post-9/11 comments, again. And she managed all this without appearing too “nasty.”

Actually, Obama emerged the real winner, said Walter Shapiro in Salon. Not because he came out of the uninspiring evening looking terrific—that’s hard to do in a debate largely devoid of substance and brimming with gotcha politics—but because nothing happened to “magically transform” a race in which he “has long been the odds-on favorite.” The Pennsylvania primary is days away, and this might have been the last debate, so “Obama won the debate by the simple act of not losing.”

The real winner of that trash-fest was John McCain, said John Nicholls in The Nation’s The Online Beat blog. At a moment when even a Republican administration has driven the economy into a ditch, “when the vice president and the secretary of state stand accused of organizing torture parties in Washington, when the president has gotten us bogged down in two foreign quagmires, and when official gaming of globalization has stirred up food riots around the world,” Obama and Clinton spent the night “trying to out-FOX one another.” What an “ugly, unilluminating debate.”