9:53 pm: My take: This is one of those debates where you could call it based just on your predilections -- enough for both sides to declare victory, and not a debate that's likely to change many minds. Indeed, it seemed that this was all about talking to undecided voters, introducing their positions, on substantive grounds. This was a meaty debate -- the jabs were all couched in policy.
So we can be disappointed in the lack of fireworks, but let us applaud the high-minded discussion. Voters heard real differences, particularly on health care, but also on foreign policy and immigration.
To get to the tactics, this tells you (again) that neither candidate is all that confident about the campaign's trajectory. It was a showdown marked by caution, like a title fight that goes to the judges instead of being decided by who falls onto the mat.
As for winners and losers -- split decision in my head, but I give a slight edge to Sen. Clinton. She was at the top of her game tonight. It's not that Obama wasn't -- he was also in command, and he did get his points on Iraq across. But Clinton portrayed a measured confidence and competence throughout, reinforcing her campaign message, and turning down the heat that was starting to burn her.
That's it for tonight -- check back tomorrow for a full analysis of the race at The Note.
9:50 pm: Obama on the VP question: "I'm sure Hillary would be on anybody's short list." Clinton says she agrees with what Obama said, but similar words do not cross her lips. And notice that extended whispering conversation (and half-hug) on stage at the end -- no snubs tonight, indeed.
9:48 pm: From ABC's Jake Tapper: "Despite their considerable differences, Hillary and Rudy (R.I.P.) have that unusual political tic where they guffaw loudly whenever asked questions that would cause any non-politician to hit the questioner in the face. They must teach that at politician school."
9:45 pm: A BIG Clinton laugh when the question comes to controlling her husband. "The fact is, I'm running for president... I want the campaign to stay focused on the issues I care about." But that is PRECISELY the problem with what Bill Clinton has been saying. "It's a choice between the two of us," she says. If that's really want she wants, then pull Bill off the trail. Surely he has plenty of work he could be doing for his foundation.
9:44 pm: ABC's Nitya Venkataraman (WAY more into pop culture than me) does some star watching for us: "Lou Gosset Junior is at this thing. Plus Diane Keaton. Plus Bradley Whitford. Plus Rob Reiner. Plus Alfre Woodard. Plus Stevie Wonder. Plus Steven Spielberg. Plus Topher Grace. I think Hollywood is so starved because of the writers strike they realized this was their shot into the Kodak Theater this year."
9:39 pm: I guess we're blowing past the time limits... Hey, why not?
9:35 pm: Obama: "Everybody, the day after that vote was taken, understood that this was a vote potentially to go to war." He makes the link explicitly -- not all good experience is good experience. "It is important to be right on day one."
9:33 pm: "It was not just bad execution," Obama said. "We need better judgment when we send men and women into war." Good, powerful stuff, well delivered. The second half of the debate is being fought much more on Obama's turf, with all this talk about the Iraq war. And she still will not call the vote a "mistake," whatever that really means.
But I just wonder if the talk of Iraq sounds stale to people at this point. "What are we going to do going forward?" Clinton says.
9:29 pm: Sen. Clinton says her vote for the Iraq resolution was "not authority for preemptive war." I don't know -- can't she move beyond that? And "gravitas" is the word she uses -- a rather clear suggestion that the neophyte to her left lacks it.
9:26 pm: From ABC's Jake Tapper: "Clinton has a really steady tone tonight, solid and presidential. Eminently likeable. And kudos to Wolf for a very substantive debate. Now, less substantively, did they just show that in the audience is that dude from Grey's Anatomy who got fired for homophobic comments?"
9:22 pm: Obama sets up his "clear contrast," since he opposed the war from the beginning. Blitzer (hope in his voice): "Sen. Clinton, that's a clear swipe at you." She doesn't think so, apparently. Or decides not to swing back.
9:21 pm: From ABC's David Wright: "Does it seem like Obama is trying to turn the debate to McCain and the general a bit too early???? He has mentioned him 3 or 4 times now."
9:18 pm: Clinton seems very calm tonight, just totally in control of her responses. And not to leave him out -- Obama does as well. I just sense a bigger contrast with Clinton. She is having a good night, seems respectful of Obama and certain of where she is.
9:11 pm: (Was that Pierce Brosnan? James Bond is in the house?) Really good question on Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. And a good answer, but I don't know any answer will settle questions of Bush/Clinton fatigue.
9:07 pm: Obama praising the accomplishments of the Clinton years, BUT -- "who can inspire the American people?" And Obama talking about changing the electoral map -- that's a strong argument.
9:07 pm: Clinton campaign provides this link, a clip of Obama on driver's licenses from a previous debate, in November, when he handled it rather poorly.
9:05 pm: Clinton: "No one else is on the ballot." Yes, this from the woman whose campaign is deploying Bill Clinton to boost her prospects essentially any way he can.
9:02 pm: Clinton does have the resume answer down pat. And when she says the US government isn't a business, but is a "trust." Knocks it out of the park. She's in command tonight. And Obama's line is funny too: Romney hasn't gotten a good return on his investment in the campaign. HAH!
8:58 pm: Obama on experience: "We need to move forward with new leadership." "The skills that I have are the ones that are needed right now."
8:54 pm: At the halfway point -- I should give up trying to predict how feisty these things will be. So far, my guess is the Clinton campaign is marginally more happy about the debate than the Obama folks. She generally excels when the talk is substantive, and she handled the focus on health care rather masterfully.
8:51 pm: Sen. Clinton opposes driver's licenses for illegal immigrants because it "puts them at risk"? I'm sorry, but nobody would force them to get them... And Obama brings up the fact that she's been all over the map on this issue. (He also shows some love for Bill Richardson, the Hispanic governor of New Mexico.)
8:46 pm: Obama: "I think it is the right thing to do." But Obama is dancing, too -- "there are those" who have flipped, or run away from the issue. "People don't come here to drive. They come here to work," Obama says -- good line, and one that gets to the heart of his position.
But Clinton was sponsoring comprehensive reform bills back when Obama was in the state legislature. Hah.
8:42 pm: Driver's licenses for immigrants -- that was the issue that started knocking Clinton off her game many moons ago. Clinton ended up coming down against the licenses -- and that's a position that could hurt her in the critical Latino community. That's probably why she took forever to answer the question, and didn't do so directly.
8:37 pm: The RNC is having a fun night -- Obama and Clinton nodding in agreement about the need for higher taxes on the rich.
8:34 pm: All this talk of healthcare -- this is Hillary's wheelhouse. She's got to be happy about the first 34 minutes.
8:33 pm: Intriguing that Obama brings up McCain to take a swipe, on tax cuts: "Somewhere along the line, the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels." The prospect of a McCain nomination scares Democrats more than a Romney nomination -- and Obama folks argue that he'd be more electable in a general election matchup with McCain (though polling is not that clear-cut).
8:30 pm: We in the media often criticize candidates for not being substantive -- and these guys are about 90 percent substance so far. That means, 1/3 of the way, things are pretty tame. Wal-Mart mentions tied with Rezko mention -- Zero.
8:27 pm: Blitzer's right -- OF COURSE it was a swipe at Sen. Clinton's secretive task force, to say your task force would have its proceedings broadcast on C-SPAN.
8:26 pm: BUT, Obama does a good job too explaining his plan, "bringing all parties together, not negotiating behind closed doors." His plan is more incremental, but he ties it to his unity message.
8:24 pm: This strikes as one of few issue differences (since there are so few) that can drive votes. Sen. Clinton still seems more comfortable talking about her healthcare plan than Sen. Obama is about his -- it depicts Clinton as the fighter who's going for the big prize. "You have to bite this bullet," she says. (And mentions -- again -- that her plan is similar to Edwards'.)
8:20 pm: Is it universal healthcare if people decline it and don't get coverage? The Obama campaign still calls his healthcare plan "universal." It isn't, and I think Sen. Obama just acknowledged that, sort of. (And does anyone else notice that Obama can't pronounce "Massachusetts"? He lived in the state for three years, during law school, and he has three politicians named Kerry, Kennedy, and Deval Patrick who could help.)
8:18 pm: The question was about a policy difference. And Obama's answer includes positions on the Iraq war. Telling.
8:16 pm: They are playing out the healthcare and mortage issues with some real details. They disagree on the approaches -- and they're laying it out there. It's only personal at the far edges so far -- like they're feeling each other out a bit. A dig on each side -- Clinton on meeting with rogue leaders, Obama on special interests.
8:12 pm: Healthcare -- this actually is a policy difference, one of the very few that truly exists. And Clinton also jumps on that old debate line about meeting with rogue leaders.
Also, ABC's David Wright proposes a game for the night: How many times can each of them speak in uplifting terms about Sen. Edwards?
8:10 pm: We've heard before from Sen. Clinton about the "stack of problems." It's critical to her argument about being ready lead on day one. But it also speaks to one of the problems in her campaign -- it's sort of a downer to think about that stack. It's more fun to hope and dream with Obama, no?
Oh, and Sen. Clinton also squeezes in an homage to John Edwards -- and Elizabeth, too -- iin her opening statement.
8:06 pm: Obama IMMEDIATELY honors John Edwards -- hmmm, think he's interested in his supporters, by chance? And his message -- "testimony to this country," "opportunity to make history." And a message of comity -- she and Sen. Clinton will be friends no matter what. Awwwwww....
But there's the first sharp line -- "Past vs. the future." "We also have to have change that brings the country together" and that "levels with the American people." He got right to his core argument.
8:02 pm: I do love Wolf Blitzer's tendency to overhype -- but he's right tonight about the stakes and the historic nature. Sen. Clinton sounds peppy on the stage -- "Hi, Wolf, nice to see you," she says loudly. And good -- they're doing that lame pointing thing, like they're surprised to see people in the hand-picked crowd.
7:56 pm ET: Gotta love this -- great tidbit from my colleague Jonathan Greenberger. If you want to see what John Edwards is up to on his second night as a non-candidate, all you have to do is click over ESPN. The Boston College-Univ. of North Carolina game is on, at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill -- and John Edwards is in the stands. (My colleague Teddy Davis reminds us that we never did find out about how many tickets he's getting to UNC sporting events.)
7:54 pm ET: Some color from the Kodak Theater, from ABC's Sunlen Miller: "Wolf Blitzer is going through the whole and the Oscar goes to' bit before the debate starts, standing on stage before hand."
7:53 pm ET: OK, I've said before -- I'm not a bad better, but . . . how could this not be a tremendous show this evening? We're expecting a huge audience for the first head-to-head matchup. And I point this out as much to remind myself as to remind all of you, but for many, many people, this is the first debate they're watching closely. So I know I'm sick of the canned lines, but they may sound fresh to new sets of ears.
7:27 pm ET: One more pre-debate note -- Obama's campaign today announced that it has raised $32 million THIS MONTH. That's right -- not this quarter, THIS MONTH. Radio silence from the Clinton campaign -- they'll say only that they met their $10 million goal for January. This means, first off, that Obama at least (and almost certainly Clinton) is well-armed for a long haul of a campaign. And second, it's another measure of the extraordinary energy that's fueling the Obama campaign. Once again, these are fundraising figures that should have Camp Clinton worried.
6:42 pm ET: Scott -- that's an interesting point about the potential impact of Arnold on Mayor Bloomberg -- but my sense is that you're reading a bit much into today's endorsement. My sense is that the two politicians -- Gov. Schwarzenegger and Mayor Bloomberg -- are close ideologically and in their sense of purpose, and yes -- if the mayor runs, he'd really need to win California. But I think the governor's decision was made on a quite different track. Bloomberg will run if he thinks he has a realistic chance, and it's a decision that will be in his head -- he won't be taking cues from anyone, really. Meanwhile, the governor isn't going to sit out the chance to help a friend (and earn a chit) in endorsing McCain in the GOP primary, while Bloomberg is very much not a candidate.
Rick Klein from ABC's The Note here. I'll be live-blogging during tonight's Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles -- a one-on-one affair, just Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The debate starts at 8 pm ET, so watch on CNN and follow all the action here at ABCNews.com.
Stirring the pot, the Clinton campaign put out a memo this afternoon -- just maybe trying to get into Obama's head:
"Which Barack Obama will show up at tonight's Democratic debate?
"The Barack Obama who once told the press: 'I would challenge anyone to find a statement that I've made that has been personal as opposed to a substantive difference with a candidate.'
"The Barack Obama who is increasingly not drawing policy differences or highlighting issue contrasts – but personally launching or allowing his campaign to launch a series of personal negative attacks against Hillary Clinton."
So this means one thing to watch tonight -- who takes the first swing? I'm guessing the tone won't be as shrill as it was 10 days ago, in South Carolina, but there's too much at stake for this to be all sweetness and light.