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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The two remaining candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are debating this hour in Los Angeles. It is their first one-on-one debate. And it's also the last time they will face off before Tuesday when voters and nearly two dozen states go to the polls. More than half the delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination are up for grabs on Super Tuesday. And there's no indication that the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will be resolved by then.

There's plenty of tension in the contest now, thanks to some nasty rhetoric during the South Carolina's primary, and the end of John Edwards' run for the nomination.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is in Los Angeles. When I spoke to her earlier today, she said the stakes are high for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at tonight's debate.

MARA LIASSON: The debate is a lot like a general election debate. We're on the eve of a national primary. And I think what you're going to hear tonight is in effect their closing arguments against each other. From Barack Obama, expect to hear his new sharp message about why Hillary Clinton is the past, not the future. I think you can expect from her mostly positive message. But any criticism she gets from him, she's going to say is not the politics of hope, it's the politics of personal destruction.

NORRIS: In the past week, Barack Obama seems to have really sharpened his criticism about Hillary Clinton in his campaign and his campaign message. What is it that he's saying?

LIASSON: Well, I think you're right. He has struggled with how to frame the argument against her. But in Denver, the big rally yesterday, he said it's tempting to want to build a bridge back to the 20th century that was as big as Bill Clinton's bridge to the 21st century. He talked about how he needs a nominee who can unite the party, not unite the other party against us. He's starting to make an argument about electability. He said you can't be John McCain with someone who agreed with him, meaning on the war. All these, of course, without mentioning Hillary Clinton's name.

NORRIS: Hillary Clinton, at some degree, seemed to be on defensive this week. There are some backlash against her husband and some of the comments that he made reaching back to that South Carolina primary. We haven't heard much from the former president in recent days.

LIASSON: No. There's no doubt that Bill Clinton's role has been changed. His rhetoric has been toned down. He gives shorter speeches. He talks more about her and she less about I. And Hillary Rodham Clinton told ABC News that his attacks may have caused her votes in South Carolina. She said this is my race. And I think you can expect her to strike a more positive tone. I think the Clintons have had to adjust their rhetoric in South Carolina.

NORRIS: Barack Obama goes into Super Tuesday having won a big win in South Carolina. Clinton also won in Florida, didn't pick up delegates but did win there. So who has a sense of momentum right now?

LIASSON: Well, I think that neither of them really have any momentum right now. Hillary Clinton does have a lead in the polls in the big February 5th states, but they're very evenly matched, especially in money. Barack Obama just raised $32 million in January. That is the most money ever raised in one month by a presidential candidate in a contested primary. He's going to advertise in 20 out of the 22 February 5th states. Hillary Clinton is advertising in 12, including her own state of New York, which tells you how competitive this is.

The New York Post endorsed Obama. And don't forget they're both going to get delegates everywhere, no state is winner take all and everyone assumes that no one will end up with 2,025 delegates, the number that you need, on February 5th, and this race is going to go on and on.

NORRIS: That was NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, speaking to us from Los Angeles. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Michele.

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