|The Philadelphia primary could be "make or break" time for Hillary Clinton [GALLO/GETTY]
With the Pennsylvania primary just around the corner, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sat down for yet another debate - their 21st.
But who is counting?
Wednesday's debate was a pretty nasty clash, and certainly not one that reflected well on the mainstream US news media.
In a commercial-crammed session, journalists Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of the ABC television network chose largely to steer clear of substantive topics.
Instead they zeroed in relentlessly on irrelevant and trivial tidbits in the hopes of getting Clinton and Obama to snap and snarl at one another.
It was like watching some sadistic Elizabethan bear-baiters goad powerful animals hoping they would roar and rip at each other with their fangs.
The two-hour debate was nearly halfway over by the time the moderators started asking reality-based questions about health care, Iraq and the economy.
By then, Obama was practically pleading for some common sense, saying: "What's important is that we don't get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history."
|Both Obama and Clinton facedtough, if
superficial, questions at the debate [AFP]
The ABC personalities disregarded his plea.
Their eyes gleamed as they eschewed serious topics, instead questioning the candidates about the following "issues".
Was Obama just a smarty-pants elitist when he talked about how small-town folks get bitter and cling to guns and God when they get shafted by the economic system?
Obama said the way he had expressed himself on the matter was "mangled", but made a larger point about "Gotcha!" politics as practiced by the media and his opponent, noting: "You take one person's statement, if it's not properly phrased, and you just beat it to death."
Does Obama disown inflammatory racial and anti-American comments made by his controversial church pastor, Jeremiah Wright?
He did, just as he has about a thousand times now since the matter came to light last month.
Rehashing old controversies
Apparently trying to make the canned debate more "interactive", ABC ran a video clip of a portly Pennsylvanian named Nash McCabe.
Ms McCabe, apparently not interested at all in the economy, Iraq, or global warming, wanted to know whether Obama "believes in the American flag" - and Gibson noted that Obama - shock, horror! - does not wear a little US flag pin on the lapel of his suit.
This time, Obama seemed really irritated.
He explained that, yes, actually he is patriotic, and he does love his country; otherwise he would not be running for president, would he?
As you might gather from reading the above, most of the negative questioning seemed to be aimed at Obama.
ABC seemed eager to rebut Clinton's earlier claims that the media has been giving her opponent a free ride.
And of course Stephanopoulos used to work for Clinton's husband Bill as his press secretary, before he cashed in on a network salary, somehow transforming from partisan political mouthpiece to "objective" journalist (just another thing that's wrong with our system of media and politics - do not get me started).
Influential television critic Tom Shales of the Washington Post newspaper called it "another step downward for network news" and said Gibson and Stephanopoulos turned in "shoddy, despicable performances".
Onwards to Philadelphia
As for Clinton, she got slammed with a question about the (now long-since thoroughly explored) issue of her fantasia of danger on the tarmac in Tuzla.
She admitted she was "embarrassed" by having said things that "weren't in keeping with what I knew to be the case".
Clinton scored some points, and planted some more doubts about Obama's electability in the minds of her core voters - older white middle- and lower-class, less well educated voters.
She brushed off questions about whether her insistence on staying in the race despite all indications that she will not succeed was hurting the Democrats' prospects for the November election.
If I were John McCain, I would have settled in to enjoy this debate with a great big bowl of buttered popcorn, and hope for many, many more of this type.
As for the primary itself, Clinton maintains a shrinking lead over Obama in Pennsylvania, although new polling shows she has slipped rather badly behind among Democrats nationwide.
Interestingly, a new poll also shows about half of Democrats surveyed think their candidates are spending too much time arguing over things that are not really important, rather than focusing on real issues.
I will be in Philadelphia next week, eating cheesesteaks and reporting on the primary vote, I hope to have some interesting observations for you then.
Bush's 'Scottish terrier'
In the meantime, allow me a brief digression.
|Brown, left and Bush seem keen to keep the
"special relationship" alive [AFP]
With the cherry blossoms blooming and the first balmy days of springtime descending on the nation's capital, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, arrived at the White House.
Brown's face contorted into an unfamiliar grimace as he strode to the podium for his joint news conference with President Bush. Was it a smile?
The prime minister is determined not to allow the fate of his predecessor, Tony Blair, to befall him.
Blair was such a faithful friend to the US president that he earned the moniker "Bush's Poodle", along with the scorn of a British electorate that disdained the rough-edged Texan's policies and personality.
Yet, because Britain's downsized role in the world would shrink even further were it not for its near-umbilical attachment to the US and constant aiding and abetting of US foreign policy, Brown must himself hitch himself firmly to the Bush wagon.
He did so with alacrity, proclaiming that: "The world owes George Bush a huge debt of gratitude for the leading the world in rooting out terrorism."
They both extolled the wonders of the "special relationship" - which Bush called "very special".
He said he was going to fix Brown a hamburger - well done.
If Bush needs further canine companionship he need not lament the loss of his faithful poodle - he has a new pal, a plucky Scottish terrier.
Sanctity of life?
Earlier, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the White House was a jolly affair, although both pontiff and president spoke at length about the sanctity of life.
Bush admonished those who commit violence in the name of religion or condone abortion - a neat way of trying to link al-Qaeda and the Democratic party.
I found it interesting that even as Benedict and Bush were solemnly intoning about the sanctity of human life, the US supreme court - led by two Bush-appointed judges who have tipped the panel radically rightward - was announcing a decision allowing states to go ahead with the execution by lethal injection of prisoners on death row.
The particular method of killing in this instance - a multi-drug cocktail that paralyses the condemned and stops his or her vital functions - is alleged by death penalty opponents to cause intense pain.
The US veterinarians association, in fact, has banned it as too inhumane a method to put down cats and dogs.
The Catholic Church strongly opposes capital punishment.
After their ruling, the court's five Catholic justices, all of whom voted in favour of lethal injections, swapped their judicial robes for tuxedoes and headed off to a White House state dinner in honour of the pope.
The pope skipped his own dinner. Go figure.