In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have spent the last few months circling each other. This week, however, they finally went head to head. The subject: how to deal with dictators.
But the clash was about much more than that.
It was the first direct engagement between the two leading candidates, and it showed that Clinton is agile and aggressive, while Obama can take a punch and return it.
It started Monday night at the Youtube debate. The candidates were asked whether they had meet without preconditions with the leaders of countries such as Iran, North Korea or Cuba.
Obama said he would; Clinton said she wouldn't, because that would give dictators in those countries a propaganda victory.
The Clinton camp said the answers showed her toughness and experience and Obama's lack of both. There's nothing unusual about that kind of exchange, conducted through surrogates.
But then Clinton made it personal, telling The Iowa Quad City Times that she Obama's position was "irresponsible" and "frankly naïve."
Obama hit back.
"If you want to talk about irresponsibility and naivete, look at her vote to authorize George Bush to send troops into Iraq without an exit plan," he said.
Of course, Clinton herself has criticized President Bush for not dealing directly with countries such as Iran and Syria. On July 10 in Iowa, she said she would deal with those countries right from the beginning of a Clinton presidency.
"Unfortunately, for most of the past six years, President Bush has adopted a simple and fundamentally flawed strategy for dealing with these countries: we don't talk to bad people," she said.
For Obama, the skirmish with Clinton was an opportunity to make a larger point: that he represents the future, while she represents the past.
"It is no longer sufficient for us to trot out the old formulas, the old tired phrases," Obama said at a rally on Thursday. "If we want fundamental change, then we can't be afraid to talk to our enemies."
"I'm not going to avoid them, I'm not going to hide behind a bunch of rhetoric. I don't want a continuation of Bush-Cheney; I don't want Bush-Cheney light," he added.
That seemed to strike a nerve with Clinton:
"You know, I've been called a lot of things in my life, but I've never been called George Bush or Dick Cheney, certainly. You know, you have to ask, whatever happened to the politics of hope?"
That dig is Clinton trying to box Obama in. She suggests that since he's promised a different kind of politics, he's a hypocrite each time he attacks or counterattacks.
Obama rejected that notion in an interview with NPR on Friday.
"The notion that we can't have a substantive argument, or that I can't challenge some of their conventional wisdom without somehow sacrificing the broader themes of our campaign - which is to bring people together and change the tone of politics - I think makes no sense," Obama said.