"There are no rules," moderator Wolf Blitzer said proudly at the outset of last night's Democratic debate, as if he were about to lift the gates on a vicious free-for-all.
But no rules or referees were needed in this kindest and calmest of forums. When Barack Obama started the night by declaring his eternal friendship with Hillary Clinton - and pointing out, accurately, that 95 percent of their policy notions are identical - it didn't exactly set the stage for conflict.
What followed was a quiet, detailed discussion of policy issues, focused at times on minute differences, peppered with occasional bouts of mutual admiration.
Days before the crucial Super Tuesday contests, on a night when they were making first impressions on many voters, the candidates seemed to have mutually agreed to rise above the fray.
Of course, CNN's Blitzer did his best to drag them back in. When Obama brought up the idea of broadcasting healthcare negotiations on CSPAN, Blitzer jumped in hopefully, "Is that a swipe at Senator Clinton?"
Clinton smiled a bit, but Obama deflected it. And Blitzer seemed almost baffled: He has presided over far more tense contests between these two, and not so long ago.
Over in the GOP, a long campaign has only served to widen rifts. In the matching Republican debate the previous night, also broadcast by CNN and cosponsored by the Los Angeles Times and The Politico, John McCain and Mitt Romney could barely contain their mutual disdain, and spent a hefty chunk of time swiping at each other over long-ago statements and negative ads. (Each dripped with bitterness when describing the other as "a fine man.")
Last night, with the candidates so cordial, it was Blitzer who played the attack dog. "So what I hear you saying, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that you were naive in trusting President Bush?" he asked Clinton, after she gave a lengthy explanation on her vote for the war in Iraq.
"No, that's not what you hear me saying," Clinton said with a smile. "Good try, Wolf. Good try."
Blitzer tried again. "Was she naive, Senator Obama?"
Clinton parried that one away; Obama seemed relieved. Each one even excused the other for changing positions on whether illegal immigrants should get driver's licenses (Obama says yes, Clinton no). "At this point, she's got a clear position, but it took awhile," Obama said. "The only reason I bring that up is to underscore the fact that this is a difficult political issue."
With so little sniping, the candidates had ample time to delve into the nuances of policy, in what amounted to a rehearsal for the eventual showdowns with a Republican nominee. "There will be a great debate between us and the Republicans," Clinton said at one point, and she's right. The general election will focus on huge, fundamental policy divides: on healthcare, immigration, taxes, the war in Iraq.
Both Democrats declared a willingness to take on the opposition and to stand by principles that have caused national divides. Asked whether ending the Bush tax cuts would amount to a politically toxic tax increase, Obama said yes. "I'm not bashful about it," he said, gazing into Los Angeles's Kodak Theater, which was filled with adoring Hollywood luminaries. "I suspect a lot of this crowd - it looks like a well-dressed crowd - will pay a little bit more."
The stars seemed happy, but the opponents are sharpening their knives; within minutes of the debate's end, the Republican National Committee issued a statement mocking the "Hollywood elites" for their support of liberal programs.
Obama, in particular, seemed ready to fight back, peppering the debate with some practiced one-liners. "Mitt Romney hasn't gotten a very good return on his investment in this presidential campaign," he said to guffaws, when asked if Romney's business background was the best qualification for president.
To his more immediate opponent, Obama had only kind things to say, on the surface, at least. At times, the mutual friendliness felt like a vaudeville act. When Obama made an oblique reference to Clinton's vote to authorize the war, Blitzer jumped in hopefully again: "Senator Clinton, that's a clear swipe at you."
"Really?" Clinton said in mock surprise.
"I wouldn't call it a swipe," Obama said.
"We're having such a good time," Clinton said. "We are. We are. We're having a wonderful time."
"Absolutely," Obama said.
That, in itself, seems doubtful. But they were having a substantive time, and that bodes well for the rest of the campaign.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.