A woman took the microphone at a town hall meeting here and stated the obvious to Sen. Barack Obama about last night's ABC News debate.
"You were really pummeled," she told the Illinois senator. All those questions on William Ayers, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, flag pins and guns made her wonder about the general election attacks yet to come. "What is your strategy to beat the Republicans in November?" the woman asked Obama.
"That was the roll out of the Republican campaign against me," Obama responded. "That is what they will do. They will try to focus on all these issues." He said he would answer the attacks "sharply and crisply," and seek to turn the debate from "tit-for-tat silliness" to serious issues like the economy and Iraq. "If Republicans come at me, I will come right back at them," Obama asserted, to loud cheers.
Offstage, campaign advisers seemed taken aback by the negative reviews of Obama's performance that filled the cable airwaves and blogosphere this morning. They believed Obama got a tougher grilling than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but chalked it up to his new front-runner status. In their view, Obama had responded reasonably well -- and surely better than in earlier debates, when his low-impact style could seem soft compared to Clinton's bite.
"I'm not whining about it," shrugged David Axelrod, Obama's political adviser. "We showed up."
For Obama, the debate provided a fresh illustration of one of his underlying campaign themes, that Washington had lost touch with the rest of the country. "Washington hasn't gotten the news yet that people want something different," the candidate told the Raleigh crowd. "Last night we set a new record. It took us 45 minutes ... before we heard about health care. Forty-five minutes before we heard about Iraq. Forty-five minutes before we heard about jobs. That's how Washington is," Obama said.
It's a town of "gotcha games," "anything goes," and "slash-and-burn politics," and Obama added, "Sen. Clinton looked in her element" on the ABC stage last night, as Obama grappled with questions about why he doesn't wear a flag pin his on his lapel, the Wright scandal redux, and Obama's relationship with Ayers, a prominent Chicago resident who had been a member of the radical '60s terrorist group the Weathermen.
The crowd erupted. "That's her right, to twist the knife a little bit," Obama continued. "That's how our politics has been taught to be played."
Obama will hold two town-hall meetings today in North Carolina before flying to Erie, Pa., where he begins a five day road-and-rail trip across the Keystone State, ending Tuesday, the day of the Pennsylvania primary. North Carolina represents the more hospitable to Obama of the two May 6 states; polls show him holding a steady lead over Clinton, although a significant fraction also remains undecided. In the second state, Indiana, Clinton holds a slight edge, although recent surveys suggest the race there may be tightening.
Obama told the Raleigh crowd that he expected a hard fight, but his tone suggested that last night's 21st Democratic debate could prove to be the last. Asked by another audience member if he would agree to a North Carolina debate before the May 6 primary here, Obama sounded less than enthusiastic, suggesting the sessions had become time consuming and repetitive.
"It's not like we don't know how to do these things," he said. "I can deliver Sen. Clinton's lines, she can deliver mine."
Whatever the fate of the debate, Obama told an overflow crowd gathered outside in Raleigh, "North Carolina is going to be critically important. If we can win in North Carolina, I think we can wrap up this nomination."
It did occur me to recently that the general campaign has now begun. Instead of just Joe Lieberman and others sniping from the sidelines as the two major candidates battle, there is still one "in-house" candidate who is like a sparring partner, still swinging but not landing any damaging blows.