For all the expectations of high-stakes combat at Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate in Austin, Texas, the most riveting engagement of the night came at the very end—when Hillary Clinton turned to her opponent and shook his hand. “I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored,” she said. “Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.

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You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we’ll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that’s what this election should be about.” The Democratic crowd leapt to its feet and cheered.

The moment was Clinton’s most heartfelt since she got teary at a voter’s question in New Hampshire, but it had a valedictory, almost elegiac feel to it. Going into the debate, the burden had been on Clinton to change a dynamic that has turned against her, as Barack Obama has racked up 11 victories in a row in the two weeks since Super Tuesday, grabbing the lead in pledged delegates, and momentum. An ABC News-Washington Post poll released shortly before the debate showed Clinton in a statistical dead heat against Obama in Texas, and hanging onto only a slender lead in Ohio. Her own husband had conceded a day earlier that both states are crucial to her survival. “You probably like it that it has come down to Texas,” Bill Clinton said while campaigning for her in Beaumont, Tex. “If she wins Texas and Ohio, I think she will be the nominee. If you don’t deliver for her then I don’t think she can be. It’s all on you.”

Clinton has shone in most of the debates thus far, while Obama has been weaker in this forum. But the sedate affair on Thursday night is not likely to have much of an impact on the race. There were some slight differences between the two of them here and there on policy. They rehashed the main difference in their health care plans. Though both would make health care more affordable, Clinton would insist upon a requirement that every American have coverage; Obama would not, though he contends that lowering the cost would make nearly everyone decide to do it. Clinton said she would not sit down with Raul Castro until he had shown clear signs of political reform in Cuba; Obama said he would insist upon preparations, not preconditions. That distinction is hardly likely to sway many people in either Texas or Ohio.

Indeed, there were many moments where the rivals seemed more eager to prove how similar they were on policy. Asked how she would differ from Obama on the economy, an issue which has become the top priority for voters, Clinton began: “I would agree with a lot that Senator Obama just said, because it is the Democratic agenda.” And what about that border fence, for which they both voted? “Well, this is an area where Senator Clinton and I almost entirely agree,” Obama said, as he echoed Clinton’s argument for more sensitivity to the opinions of local communities.

Where Clinton tried to score points, she largely missed. When their argument over whether Obama had plagiarized lines from his campaign co-chairman, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the Illinois Senator got the better of the exchange. “You know, this is where we start getting into silly season, in politics, and I think people start getting discouraged about it,” Obama said. Clinton rejoined with an attack line that fell flat, and even drew some boos: “You know, lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox.” And the canned line seemed even lamer after the debate, when bloggers unearthed the similarity between a line she used in that powerful conclusion of the debate—”You know, the hits I’ve taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country”—and Bill Clinton’s 1992 declaration that: “The hits that I took in this election are nothing compared to the hits the people of this state and this country have been taking for a long time.”

Obama probably came out better on a more fundamental question: Which of the two is more ready to be commander-in-chief? Clinton—who has a tendency to get lost in her own resume—wandered into a discourse on her visits to foreign countries, her outspokenness on women’s rights in China and her tenure on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Obama focused on how he would do the job ahead: “My number one job as president will be to keep the American people safe. I will do whatever is required to accomplish that. I will not hesitate to act against those that would do America harm. Now, that involves maintaining the strongest military on earth, which means that we are training our troops properly and equipping them properly, and putting them on proper rotations.”

But Obama’s best moment came when he went right to heart of the main argument that Clinton has been making against him. “I do think there is a fundamental difference between us in terms of how change comes about. Senator Clinton of late has said: Let’s get real. The implication is that the people who’ve been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional,” Obama said to laughter from the audience. “And that, the 20 million people who’ve been paying attention to 19 debates and the editorial boards all across the country at newspapers who have given me endorsements, including every major newspaper here in the state of Texas. You know, the thinking is that somehow, they’re being duped, and eventually they’re going to see the reality of things. Well, I think they perceive reality of what’s going on in Washington very clearly.” More and more people are perceiving the reality of what’s happening on the campaign trail as well, and despite her best efforts in Austin Thursday night, Hillary Clinton still appears unable to alter it.

* By Karen Tumulty (TIME; Friday, Feb. 22, 2008)