NBC’s Today called the Democratic debate a "Vegas slugfest" at the beginning of the Friday morning show, but the story that followed by NBC reporter and Hillary pal Andrea Mitchell made it look like a TKO for Hillary. "She proved she can take a punch," oozed Mitchell, and "she denied playing the gender card." Mitchell noted her husband did, but she made no attempt to rebut the falsehood that Hillary's campaign in general never did.
If the "pal" language sounds strong, find Andrea Mitchell’s recent memoir Talking Back and see the gal-pal, smiley-faced Hillary-autographed picture from the 1995 Beijing summit for women that’s in the book's photo section in the middle. That’s either true feminist sisterhood or just an eagerness to be pictured arm in arm with the powerful. "Talking back" is not something she’s done to Hillary on NBC. Matt Lauer introduced Mitchell’s story of Hillary vanquishing her brutish male rivals:
MATT LAUER: Now to "Decision 2008." The Democrats running for president faced off in Las Vegas last night in yet another debate and this time front-runner Hillary Clinton decided it was time to throw all her chips on the table. NBC's Andrea Mitchell was following all the action. Andrea, good morning to you.
ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, good morning Matt. Two weeks after stumbling in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton did take on her opponents in Las Vegas, and she proved she can take a punch.
SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): This pantsuit. It's asbestos.
MITCHELL: Once again Barack Obama and John Edwards came after her.
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): What the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we've seen out of Senator Clinton.
FORMER SENATOR JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC): She says she will turn up the heat on George Bush and the Republicans but when the crucial vote came on stopping Bush, Cheney, and the neocons on Iran, she voted with Bush and Cheney.
MITCHELL: This time she fired back.
CLINTON: When somebody starts throwing mud at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook.
MITCHELL: Despite comments from her husband about the boys getting tough on her, she denied playing the gender card.
CLINTON: I'm just trying to play the winning card. And I understand very well that people are not attacking me because I'm a woman. They're attacking me because I'm ahead.
MITCHELL: Obama and Clinton tangled over health care.
CLINTON: I cannot let that go unanswered. Senator Obama's health care plan does not cover everyone.
MITCHELL: And Social Security.
CLINTON: That is a $1 trillion tax increase. I don't think we need to do that.
OBAMA: This is the kind of thing I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani where we start playing with numbers.
MITCHELL: But unlike two weeks ago, it was Obama, not Clinton, who tripped on a question about immigration.
WOLF BLITZER: Do you support or oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants?
OBAMA: I am not proposing that that's what we do.
BLITZER: That's the kind of question that is sort of available for a yes or no answer.
MITCHELL: The risk for Clinton's challengers; voters may not like their attack.
EDWARDS: Senator Clinton defends the system, takes money from lobbyists, does all those things. My point is simply that people have- [boos] no wait a minute-
MITCHELL: Despite the late hour, Hillary Clinton then flew back overnight to vote in Washington this morning on limiting funds for the Iraq War, despite a certain presidential veto of that. Then she will turn right back around, fly back to Nevada to resume campaigning.
When NBC turned to the obligatory Russert Analysis Segment, Tim Russert thought the booing from "very boisterous" Hillary partisans Thursday night threw off Obama and Edwards. (It’s too bad Mitchell’s report presented the boos as coming vaguely from the audience or the public, not from Clinton campaign staffers and volunteers.) Unlike Bob Schieffer on CBS, Russert didn’t discount the pro-Hillary hollering as something to discount:
MATT LAUER: So, after the last debate Hillary Clinton came out, said this wasn't my best performance. Last night she seemed to come out much stronger right out of the box. What did you see in terms of a change?
TIM RUSSERT: Big change, Matt. In the last debate she seemed stunned people that were going to challenge her, that were not going to accept the notion of inevitability. Last night she realized that she had to fight for this nomination and she had to respond in kind to Senator Obama and Senator Edwards. She went on the offense much more last night than two weeks ago.
LAUER: Maybe it's a growing sense of comfort with the front-runner status here, Tim, and maybe more comfort or getting a little bit more used to the heat that comes with it?
RUSSERT: Absolutely. A recognition that this is going to be a difficult race. Why, Matt? Because the national polls are in effect meaningless. It's all about Iowa and it's a three-way dead heat with Clinton, Obama and Edwards all bunched together. When Obama and Edwards go after Senator Clinton about her record, about her integrity, she realizes that she just can't brush it off and say "why can't we all just focus on the Republicans?" She has to defend herself.
LAUER: So, let's start about Senator Obama and Senator Edwards then. If they were the ones doing the punching a couple of weeks ago and again last night, but she counter punched. How did they handle themselves?
RUSSERT: It was a different kind of debate, Matt, because of her tactics and also as Andrea pointed out in her piece, the audience was involved much more last night than they were in the previous debate. So when Senator Obama or Senator Edwards were critical of Hillary Clinton, her supporters were very boisterous in letting their feelings known, which I think threw Obama and Edwards off their game a bit.
Lauer and Russert then turned the end of the segment over to the Republicans, and how Giuliani had a tough week and Mike Huckabee is surging in Iowa. Russert said "The Giuliani people would like nothing more than Huckabee to knock off Romney in Iowa and shake up the race and stop Romney in those early states." That might explain why liberal journos like Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter are suddenly promoting Huckabee at this juncture of the campaign. They might love a Hillary vs. Rudy campaign. That's certainly what she wants.