WASHINGTON - Hillary Clinton last night showcased all the skills that have vaulted her to the forefront of the presidential race, from her seemingly effortless command of facts to her newly smiling personality.
When fringe candidate Mike Gravel offered a passionate critique of her views, his arms flailing and his voice cracking, Clinton was smart enough to laugh ("I don't know where to start"), lower her voice, and offer a reasoned response. When master inquisitor Tim Russert tried to pin her down on a tough question about Israel possibly attacking Iran, she batted him away with an easy, "Tim, I think that's one of those hypotheticals that's better not addressed."
She wasn't evasive or condescending. She sounded clear and wise. She showed again why debates are her best campaign forum. She seemed, in every sense, a politician at the peak of her skills.
And yet last night's New Hampshire debate, coming at a moment of fast-moving news currents regarding both Iraq and Iran, also illustrated how she might yet lose the Democratic presidential nomination.
More than in most previous debates, the distance between Clinton's sober approach to foreign policy and the emotions of the Democratic Party seemed at odds.
She began by defending the actions of the increasingly unpopular Democratic-led Congress, which so far has been unable to rein in the Iraq war, to the fury of many liberals.
"The Democrats keep voting for what we believe would be a better course," she said. "Unfortunately, as you know so well, the Democrats don't have the majority to get past that 60-vote blockade that the Republicans can still put up."
Then came the discussion of Iran. Earlier in the day, Clinton had voted to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist organization, calling on President Bush to use levers, "including diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military instruments," to combat Iranian influence in Iraq. But some Democrats, including Clinton's presidential rivals Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware, voted against the measure, fearing it could lead to war.
Clinton didn't see it that way. Designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, she said, "gives us the options to be able to impose sanctions on the primary leaders to try to begin to put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran."
It seemed reasonable enough - until former North Carolina senator John Edwards reminded viewers that giving the president leverage was Clinton's justification for supporting the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Edwards, too, had made that argument at the time.
But, he said: "We learned a very different lesson from that. I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran."
Edwards's views probably resonated with Democrats who are, above all else, distrustful of Bush. And his smooth performance last night could further establish him as a progressive alternative to Clinton. But as often has happened in the debates, Edwards stood out more for his ability to point out flaws in Clinton's arguments than to present fully developed programs of his own.
Other candidates, too, reverted to familiar form. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois made no serious missteps but tended to fade out of the picture at key moments. Biden seemed to reference half the votes in his 35-year Senate career, though he was at his best in a quick putdown of Republican firebrand Rudy Giuliani: "Rudy Giuliani doesn't know what the heck he's talking about. He's the most uninformed person in American foreign policy now running for president, number one."
None of them had the presence of Clinton, and none, right now, has her poll numbers.
But based on last night's debate, Democrats may find themselves with a head/heart dilemma: Their best presidential candidate may not be the person who most fully captures their passions.