The L.A. Throwdown: A Viewer’s Guide

Now that John Edwards has dropped out of the Democratic presidential race so that “history can blaze its path,” Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will have tonight’s debate stage all to themselves. Naturally, the networks (and we) are hyping it as a mano-a-womano showdown, a duel to the death, a steel cage match of political acumen.

Here are a few things to look for:

Knives out. Ever since South Carolina, Obama has ratcheted up the anti-Hillary rhetoric. Without naming names, he told a crowd of 9,000 in Denver yesterday that this election is about “past versus future,” and that it’s time to end the “same do-anything, say-anything, divisive politics.” Clinton’s camp called the speech an “angry screed.” Today, they sent out an e-mail blast denouncing the Obama campaign’s “character attacks.” Look for Obama to cite Hillary’s “distortions” of his record, to play his Iraq vote trump card early and often, and to emphasize his new favorite dichotomy: ” ready vs. right .” (Keep in mind he hasn’t tapped the real ‘90s dirt; the words “Whitewater,” “travelgate,” and “Lincoln bedroom” remind unuttered.) Expect Hillary to fire back on Rezko and Obama’s “present” votes, and probably to act hurt once or twice. At this point, Obama could benefit from getting a little steamed, when appropriate. But without an Edwards to bring everyone back to earth, the fuses won’t have much time to cool.

The Golden State pander. Expect to hear a lot about pathways to citizenship, jobs, and strong communities. Also prepare for a resurgence of the driver’s license issue. Obama recently declared his support for licenses for illegal immigrants—a stance that will certainly help him among Latinos in California, but which could backfire badly in other states. Hillary officially opposes such licenses, but she’ll have trouble dinging Obama for it, since she famously wavered on the issue in a debate last fall. And hell, now that they’re in California, Obama might even praise Ronald Reagan for real this time.

Stimulate this. Exit polls show voters listing the economy as their top issue. Congress and the White House are approaching a showdown over a stimulus package. Obama and Hillary both have unveiled their own packages and are likely to spend tonight touting them. Obama’s emphasizes fast cash on hand and rebates for low- and middle-income seniors. Hillary’s includes a housing crisis plan that would freeze interest rates and impose a moratorium on some subprime mortgages. She also tosses in money for heating homes. Observers disagree on whose plan is better—as will the candidates.

The Anti-McCain. With John McCain leading the Republican pack, both candidates will try to prove that they’re the one who can beat him. Obama offered a preview of his argument in his Denver speech yesterday: “It’s time for new leadership that understands that the way to win a debate with John McCain … is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq; who agreed with him by voting to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; who agrees with him in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don’t like.” Hillary will argue that she has experience sustaining GOP attacks, whereas Obama’s still green.

Given all this, expect the most furious mid- and post-debate spin yet. After her “win” in Florida, Clinton will try to use her debate performance to build on that “momentum.” Obama’s team, meanwhile, will politely remind everyone of the delegate count.