What happened
The Democratic presidential contenders avoided attacking each other Thursday in their last debate before the January Iowa caucuses, politely spelling out differences in policy on economics, trade, and other issues after a week of testy exchanges between front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (CNN.com)

What the commentators said
The lack of “fireworks” was a letdown, said Liz Halloran in USNews.com, at least for viewers hoping to see the “warring” Clinton and Obama campaigns slug it out. Clinton’s assertion that she pushed for change by “working for it” instead of “dreaming about it”—a reference to Obama’s theme of hope—was “as pointed as it got.”

It was “a testament to the high-mindedness” of the debate’s sponsor, the Des Moines Register, that the fighting didn’t spill onto the stage, said Byron York in National Review Online. All anyone could talk about backstage was the “war” between the front-runners. Earlier, Clinton issued an apology after her New Hampshire co-chairman said Republican tricksters would have a field day with Obama’s acknowledged youthful drug use.

The debate was indeed a “snoozer,” said Tom Bevan in the RealClearPolitics blog at Time.com. And that was good news for Obama. He’s out ahead in Iowa, and he “emerged from the final debate” before the Jan. 3 caucuses “without suffering so much as a scratch.”

Mark down Clinton as the debate’s biggest loser, said Michael Goodwin in the New York Daily News. Not because she did poorly, but because Obama and former senator John Edwards did better. Clinton went into the debate “in a tight battle for first place. She left in danger of finishing third in the Iowa caucus. Yikes.”

Obama gained because he wasn’t knocked “off his stride,” said David Yepsen in the Des Moines Register, but the real winners were the “second-tier candidates, especially Joe Biden.” He spent the evening listening to everyone praise his record on civil rights, and “was cool, commanding, and presidential” instead of “strident or comical,” as he has looked in the past.