Given the recent unpleasantness between the two, and Mrs. Clinton’s 10-state losing streak, it seems a safe bet that when they meet Thursday night in Austin, Tex., at a debate sponsored by CNN, the tone just might not be so jolly.
This debate, which starts at 8 p.m. Eastern time, is the first of two big chances for Mrs. Clinton to reverse her fortunes between now and March 4, when Texas and Ohio vote. The other comes Tuesday, on MSNBC.
Like unhappy families, the 18 Democratic debates so far have all offered up their own singular moments. But as a running series, with Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton as recurring dueling protagonists, they have established certain patterns and rhythms.
Here are some moments to watch for as this long-running series, “When Candidates Collide,” hurtles through its final episodes.
CURTAINS UP CNN likes to open its debates with a little pregame warm-up, with the candidates jogging out onto the field, er, stage, and doing a grip-and-grin with local notables. Protocol calls for warm greetings but not necessarily between candidates. Check out the body language here and whether Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton acknowledge each other.
FIRST STRIKE Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has already signaled that she will be making stark “comparisons” with Mr. Obama; in other words, because Mr. Obama is the front-runner, expect Mrs. Clinton to make full use of her opposition research arsenal. Audiences sometimes recoil when candidates go after each other. But Mrs. Clinton has shown in past debates that she can march relentlessly forward even as the audience hurls verbal tomatoes.
A CLINTON SURPRISE? Over the course of these debates, Mrs. Clinton has pursued several lines of attack against Mr. Obama. Her chief argument has been that he is not tough enough or experienced enough to serve as an effective commander in chief — or to handle the incoming fire from Republicans. But she can surprise, too. In a previous debate, she blurted out, “It is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you because you never take responsibility.”
RETURNING THE FIRE Will Mr. Obama strike back? He sometimes seems more comfortable in a stadium with 20,000 people than on a debate stage with one. But he has nonetheless shown an eye for an opening when it presents itself. His chief argument is that Mrs. Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war shows a lack of judgment and that she would be too divisive to create a working majority in Congress. But he has made surgical strikes on other topics, too: her stint as a corporate lawyer on the board of Wal-Mart; her assertion that she voted for a bankruptcy bill but was glad it didn’t pass; her secretiveness in trying to overhaul the health care system as first lady.
DEAR JOHN Both candidates have been seeking the endorsement of John Edwards, who dropped out of the race. Appealing to his supporters will be on their minds, particularly if the conversation veers toward special interests and relieving poverty.
SIGNIFICANT OTHERS Bill Clinton has been hovering over these debates, although he has never physically attended, and he has been a frequent part of the discussion. Will the moderators use Mr. Clinton as a vehicle to ask Mr. Obama about his wife, Michelle, who has been trying to explain her recent comment, which riled some Republicans, that “for the first time, I’m really proud of my country.”