Sweet column: Clinton makes mighty try at Cleveland debate, but unlikely to knock Obama off course.

SHARE Sweet column: Clinton makes mighty try at Cleveland debate, but unlikely to knock Obama off course.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, try as she did Tuesday night, could not throw Sen. Barack Obama off the course he is on to win the Democratic nomination.

Health care dominated much of the debate on the campus of Cleveland State University hosted by NBC’s Tim Russert and Brian Williams — almost solidly for the first 16 minutes — and Clinton is right when she says her plan has a better chance than the proposal offered by Obama of covering more people.

Obama has always had a tougher time defending how he is for mandating insurance for kids and not adults; Clinton has called for enrolling everyone in an insurance plan as the starting point of negotiations with Congress.

And after all this time, Clinton finally found a way to explain why she is calling for a mandate: No one suggests making Social Security or Medicare coverage voluntary, insurance that is covered by payroll deductions every working person in the United States has to make. Both campaigns believe health care is a central issue, and Tuesday Clinton was aggressive in pushing back against an Obama direct mail piece on her plan alleging she was threatening wage garnishments.

But Clinton had a very steep challenge as she faces votes on March 4 in the delegate-rich states of Ohio and Texas, with smaller payloads in Rhode Island and Vermont. She needs not only to win, but needs landslides to catch up with Obama’s delegate counts.

She did not help herself with what seemed like another lame joke — I think it was supposed to be a joke — and she should banish whoever is giving her these bad lines because it made her look small.

“Well, can I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don’t mind. I — you know, I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious, and if anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.” That’s a mocking reference to the softball press treatment her campaign thinks Obama has been getting — and with some justification.

But if Obama is headed toward the nomination, he will be facing enormous pushback from Republicans, if not from presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Things will be magnified. Clinton hit him for never calling a substantive hearing on the subcommittee he chairs on Europe. Obama became chairman at the beginning of 2007, and he lamely conceded the point, saying he was busy campaigning this year.

He may not get off so easy in a general campaign; taking year off in a three-year Senate career won’t be so easily explained away.

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