After trying to save her sinking candidacy with awkward turns of flattery and sarcasm, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton resorted to a new tactic in Tuesday night's debate: self-pity.
"In the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time," the New York senator said, sounding more like a put-upon third-grader than a presidential candidate.
The topic was her past support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, an unpopular position in jobs-strapped Ohio. Rather than explain her evolution on trade, Clinton complained about the order of questioning and suggested that she agreed with a comedy skit accusing the media of favoring rival Barack Obama.
"I just find it curious. And if anybody saw 'Saturday Night Live,' maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," she said with a smile. "I just find it kind of curious that I keeping getting the first question."
It is not unusual for politicians to feel sorry for themselves. Obama is not above whining about criticism and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has one of the thinnest skins in politics. But the New York senator's poor-me attitude punctuated a jarring week of shifting strategies from a desperate Clinton camp.
Last Thursday, Clinton ended a nationally televised debate by saying she was "honored to be here with" Obama in a historic race between a black man and a woman. It sounded to many observers, including some in her own campaign, almost like a valedictory address - a sign, perhaps, that she saw the March 4 contests in Texas and Ohio slipping away along with her presidential ambitions.
Two days later, Clinton waved Obama's campaign fliers in the air and accused her rival of deliberately misrepresenting her positions on NAFTA and health care. "Shame on you, Barack Obama," she said.
Clinton delivered a blistering speech on Monday that compared Obama's lack of foreign policy experience to that of candidate George W. Bush in 2000.
Why the change? "Well, this is a contested campaign. And as I have said many times, I have a great deal of respect for Senator Obama. But we have differences," Clinton said Tuesday night. She complained again about the fliers and added, "I think it's important that you stand up for yourself."
The problem with her argument is that Obama's fliers were not out of bounds: She has spoken favorably about NAFTA, and her health care plan would expose people to penalties for refusing to buy health insurance.
Clinton, in turn, says Obama's health care plan stops short of universal coverage because he does not require everybody to purchase insurance. It's a fair point - or at least as fair as Obama's criticism, yet the Illinois senator complained that Clinton "constantly sent out negative attacks against us."
"And we haven't whined about it," poor Barack said immediately after whining about it.
Both candidates struggled with pointed questions from Tim Russert of NBC News, one of two moderators for the event.
Asked whether he was waffling on his pledge to abide by a spending cap for the fall campaign, Obama said he was still contesting the primaries. "If I am the nominee, I will sit down with John McCain and make sure we come up with a system that is fair to both sides," he said.
Translation: He's waffling.
The equivalent question to Clinton concerned the income tax returns that she and her husband file jointly.
"I will release my tax returns," Clinton said, if she becomes the Democratic nominee. She then added she might do so "even earlier," but not before Tuesday's primary.
Translation: Don't hold your breath.
Clinton came into the debate needing to outshine Obama or force him into a mistake, preferably one that underscored his inexperience on the national stage. She left empty-handed. If anything, Clinton committed the error that she had hoped Obama would make: Asked who would be the next Russian leader, she stumbled on the name of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
"Mesva. Msvag. Whatever," she said. Had the upstart Obama stumbled on the tongue-twister, it would have been spun as evidence that he's not ready to be president. What a pity.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. On Deadline is an occasional column.