QUICK VERDICT, THE CANDIDATES. Barack Obama owned this debate. He started off with a series of clear, crisp answers that deftly turned questions to his advantage, and he was doing that Obama thing that he does where he manages to look luminous and transcendent, as if he just stepped out of a Wordsworth poem, trailing clouds of glory. (He doesn't do this all the time, but when he does, watch out -- this is when he binds people to him.) Hillary Clinton was excellent, as well, and better on the question of meeting international leaders than Obama. She was calm, measured, and certain; her answer about being a modern American progressive should please a lot of liberals. John Edwards seemed to knock her off her stride a little on the question about who was best for women, when a hint of sourness entered her otherwise controlled and regal performance, but she soon regained her composure. And was it my imagination, or did her voice sound more melliflous than it has in the past in answer to all but two questions?

Edwards, for his part, was a clear driver on some of the debate subject matter (poverty), and his warning to those who would vote for him because of the gender or race of the others was first-rate, and worth repeating. The lameness of his response on the gay marriage question was a direct consequence of the debate format -- it's so much harder to explain to real people why they don't deserve certain rights than it is to talk about issues in the abstract. Joe Biden fought hard for a minority foreign policy view on the stage, and created an opening for others to speak more realistically, too. He also opened up a little about the family deaths in his past, which had to be hard for him. Chris Dodd seemed memorable during the debate, as well, and was endearingly one of the few on stage who felt he could not afford to work for a minimum wage given his kids' tuition needs. Bill Richardson was fine, but not particularly memorable, and Dennis Kucinich managed to show a sense of humor that made him seem like one of the gang for a change, instead of an angry and resentful outsider.

Mike Gravel was the lone embarassment on the stage until the final question, when everyone got just a little too punchy for comfort. Word to the wise: a debate between Obama and Edwards on what Clinton is wearing is that kind of thing that makes women want to knock their heads together. And I think someone needs to remind Biden that there's a commandment against coveting another man's wife.

--Garance Franke-Ruta