In an edgy debate in Philadelphia last night, Senator Barack Obama found himself repeatedly put on the hot plate both by the moderators of ABC TV and his rival for the Democratic Party nomination on issues including his association with a controversial pastor and his remarks about blue collar voters feeling bitter.
It left Mr Obama sometimes taking a defensive tone at a crucial time in the nomination marathon as Pennsylvania prepares to choose between him and Hillary Clinton in its primary election next Tuesday.
Asked in the opening moments of the confrontation to explain remarks he made at a closed fund-raiser in San Francisco suggesting that the bitterness of some voters make them "cling" to religion and to their gun rights, Mr Obama admitted that what he said might not have come out quite right."I think there's no doubt that I can see how people were offended," he offered. "It's not the first time that I've made a statement that was mangled up. It's not going to be the last." Mrs Clinton has seized on her rival's words, featuring them in TV ads in the state. She said last night they showed a "fundamental sort of misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad."
If supporters of Mrs Clinton have in the past complained of unfair treatment of her by the media, including in previous debates, it may have been the turn of Obama followers last night, as the debate stayed focused for more than an hour on side issues in the campaign, particularly ones that may not have helped him. Only in the second hour did it to turn to policy matters like Iraq, Iran, taxes and the economy.
Not that Mrs Clinton escaped entirely. She was notably asked about her misrepresenting a day spent in Bosnia in 1995 when she said she was endangered by sniper fire. This time, however, she made little attempt to pretend she had not got it wrong. "I am very sorry that I said it".
Mr Obama passed up a chance to hammer home her Bosnia gaffe. "Sometimes the message is going to be delivered imperfectly (by the both of them)," he said. "What's important is that we don't get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history."
Mrs Clinton, who has seen her lead in Pennsylvania narrow into single digits in new polls, portrayed her opponent as a candidate who would more quickly be devoured by John McCain, the Republican nominee, later this year. Voters are now learning about Mr Obama's potential problems. "It goes to this larger set of concerns about how we are going to run against John McCain," she said, arguing she had already been tested. "I have a lot of baggage and everybody has rummaged through it for years."
The moderators, more than she, successively introduced those potential weak points into the debate. They included not just his association with his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright some of whose more incendiary comments Mr Obama has denounced, but also a former member of the violent anarchist group, Weather Underground, William Ayers.
Mr Obama was arguably less poised in past debates and his usual skill at staying above the tit-for-tat of politics to emphasise his more grandiloquent message of political and social bridge-building never really took flight on this stage. He tried to resist the incessant brick-throwing between them yet found himself obliged to respond to Mrs Clinton's various attacks.
The questions about Mr Ayers and the Rev Wright were "pointless distractions", he said, that were not going to help "that person sitting at the kitchen table wondering how they are going to pay their bills". Still, he could resist pointing that two other former members of Weather Underground had received pardons for a certain former American President, Bill Clinton.
If Mr Obama is nominated could he beat Mr McCain, the former first lady was asked? "Yes, yes, yes," she responded, before adding, "I think I can do a better job, obviously that's why I'm here."