Hillary Clinton & Barack Obama: A jazzy performance fit for the Hollywood glitterati

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Was this the presidency at stake, or was it the Oscars?

As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama squared off for the final Democratic candidates' debate before next Tuesday's tsunami of primaries and caucuses, they didn't just feel the love of a jazzed up audience – in the very Hollywood theatre where the Academy Awards are held.

They didn't just arrive to the noisy cheers of rival bands of supporters arrayed on the street outside, much like fans lining the red carpet. It was as though they were fulfilling the checklist for a successful Hollywood movie memorably enunciated by the protagonist in Robert Altman's industry satire The Player: "Suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart ... and happy endings – mainly happy endings". Sure, they talked about Iraq, they talked about health care, they talked about their credentials and their sincerity and their aspirations for the future. They were, by turns, witty, well-spoken, thoughtful and engaging.

But all paled, in the end, before the warm glow of generous fellow-feeling and common purpose at last uniting these often bitter rivals. Both were asked if they might consider joining forces as a "dream ticket" to take on the Republicans in November – a question that, in itself, elicited the biggest cheers and applause of the night – and neither of them dismissed the notion. Mr Obama said the former first lady "would make anybody's short list" of potential vice-presidential candidates, and Mrs Clinton said she wouldn't disagree with that.

Then, once the debate was over and the mikes came off, Mr Obama leaned in close to Mrs Clinton in a near-embrace and whispered fondly in her ear. Whatever he said elicited peals of warm laughter.

Throughout the debate, which lasted close to two hours, the cameras recording the event cut away to notables in the Kodak Theatre crowd, Steven Spielberg, his wife Kate Capshaw, Stevie Wonder, Angelina Jolie, just as they might on Oscar night.

Certain heartland Republicans no doubt had their worst prejudices confirmed about Democrats and Hollywood glitterati all being part of the same den of unspeakable sin. But there was no denying the sheer energy of the event, in stark contrast to the near-catatonia of the previous night's Republican debate before a decommissioned Air Force One at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley. The greater pressure was undoubtedly on Mr Obama, who trails in the polls in many of the biggest Super Tuesday states, including New York and California. This was his chance to shine and, for the most part, he performed admirably – appearing gracious, quick-witted, funny and thoughtful.

He easily matched Mrs Clinton and perhaps surpassed her on the fraught issue of health care – the reform she tried and failed to implement in the first two years of her husband's presidency. And he landed some real zingers on the Iraq war, emphasising as he has many times that he opposed it while she voted to authorise President Bush to launch his invasion. He said he looked forward to attacking President Bush's Iraq policy.

His argument was less with Mrs Clinton herself as it was about preparing for the general election.

Senator Clinton, for her part, scored some valuable points on illegal immigration and came out with one of the night's best lines when asked whether it wasn't time for a new generation in politics after 20 years of Clintons and Bushes.

"It did take a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush," she said to applause, "and it might take another Clinton to clean up after the second Bush".