Hillary Clinton was machine-gunning through her first debate on Friday night in the University of Rochester auditorium. A dozen reporters sat all alone in the dark echo chamber of a balcony.
Then, a bit past halfway through, her opponent John Spencer attributed to Mrs. Clinton, by association, a boast last December by Democratic Senator Harry Reid about his party having “killed the Patriot Act.”
She was off-camera, and surely knew it. She had voted for the act, and also for its renewal. She took a drink of water from her glass, and stuck out her downstage hip, and gave him an unbelievable look. It was a white-hot prosecutor look. She could have melted his tasseled loafers.
Later, an A.P. photographer down front said he’d seen it, too. He called it “the Hillary look.”
Despite this power to irritate, Mr. Spencer didn’t matter onstage. He would go on to pretty much self-destruct by mid-afternoon Monday anyway, over silly remarks—fast denied, and then not—to the Daily News about Mrs. Clinton having had plastic surgery.
But what he did was escalate the hallucinatory ’08 Presidential storylines.
It would all get even more deep-space on Sunday, when Barack Obama took a barely coded swipe at Mrs. Clinton on Meet the Press. “I think the [political] categories we’ve been using were forged in the 60’s,” he said, denouncing the baby boomers. Mr. Obama said the “current generation” is more into the idea of “smart government.”
“Are you suggesting that those political players are, are the past … ?” asked talking face Tim Russert.
With the field devoid of Mark Warner—maybe because he’d cut a deal, or because he had something or someone hanging over his head—the press has thrown itself eyeballs-first into the teacups of Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton.
“I’m flattered by that,” Mrs. Clinton said of the attention to her maybe-ambitions on Friday.
Hints, and vague assessments of interior states, became headlines.
“After November 7th, I’ll sit down and consider it,” Mr. Obama said.
“Obama considers presidential run,” was how a CNN headline put it.
Out in the field, Mrs. Clinton was asked for comment. “I think it’s great that anybody thinks about whatever they want to do in the future,” she said.
“Clinton says it’s great Obama thinking about presidential run,” said the A.P. headline on Monday.
At the debate on Friday, none of the “current generation” had come out to protest the war. A young group of Rochesterians, numbering 15 at its largest, did however mount a protest for “marriage equality.” One of the students asked security if it was O.K. if they got on the grass.
Inside, Mr. Spencer had spent some time with the press. “I’m a nice guy—I don’t care what Howard Wolfson says,” Mr. Spencer said. Mr. Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign architect, was actually just at the edge of the reporter throng. He stopped BlackBerrying long enough to raise his hands—blameless!—and smile, mildly.
One of the reporters up in Rochester said that he sometimes thought the “Hillary press” were perhaps the very people who shouldn’t be writing about Mrs. Clinton. That, in one way, it could be considered that they had a vested interest.
Then we all went out for barbecue.
Mrs. Clinton had her revenge—against Mr. Spencer—on Sunday. The black van and the black S.U.V. that carry her and her entourage pulled up outside ABC, 67th and Columbus, a while before 8 a.m.
The TV was on in the small green room where the press was warehoused. Jake Tapper was on. “Elections are still far from a ‘hot or not’ contest,” he said. This was after Mr. Spencer had made his plastic-surgery remarks but before they were published.
Rob Ryan, Mr. Spencer’s communications director, came in and passed out copies of a new story by Dick Morris and his lovely wife about how Mrs. Clinton lost the Friday debate, as if the pieces of paper weren’t hilarious flapdoodle.
The debate took place on the Live with Regis and Kelly set. The small audience, maybe 40, was edge-of-comatose. “Did you get your electricity back?” Mrs. Clinton asked one of the panelists.
In the green room, 11 reporters transcribed what they saw on TV—seven on paper, four on laptop. This was like a manifestation of the feedback loop. The press writes about speculation. Mr. Spencer talks about speculation. Then, at the next event, Mrs. Clinton is asked to respond.
Or Mr. Clinton is. “I know you fellas want to write about this,” Mr. Clinton told the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday. “And you will.”
Sometimes messages are imparted along the way—but not yet, mostly. Mostly no one answers questions. “How would you define victory?” Mrs. Clinton was asked in the debate, about Iraq. “You know,” she began, “I would do three things right away.”
It was around 9:20 a.m. when she ripped Mr. Spencer on his record as mayor of poor Yonkers. She was glittery and warlike. Then she used the phrase “up-armor” and called Iraq and Afghanistan “theaters” of war, so again she scored over on the right of Mr. Spencer. On Friday, she had done so on Internet sex predators and Kim Jong Il. She looked as if she’d lost a bit of weight over the last three weeks. Fighting weight.
Outside, Mr. Wolfson seemed to be wearing the same khakis, and surely the same pinstriped jacket, as on Friday. Clean white shirt, though. Then the outrageous glow of Bill Clinton manifested along the screaming line of Clinton fans. How did she do? WNBC’s Jay DeDapper asked him repeatedly. Mr. Clinton gave one thumb up over the shoulder.
On the sidewalk, Mr. Ryan of Mr. Spencer’s camp picked a lazy fight with Mr. Wolfson. He wanted more debates. “Two is the magic number,” Mr. Wolfson said, repurposing the words of a rather critical New York Times editorial about the debates.
“These were fun,” Mr. Wolfson said.