It was a classic gaffe that, if caught, would have turned last Tuesday's debate and maybe would have pushed Obama into a downward spiral from which he would never recover.
Obama had already dodged a tough one when Clinton jumped in to answer the question about Putin's successor.
Would Obama have known Medvedev's name? Could he have answered the question as well as Clinton did?
We will never know.
Clinton blew it by being the smartest in the class...by half. She jumped in to answer the jump ball question...and almost pronounced Medvedev's name correctly...but if she had waited...?
The hubris of being the best and the brightest. Such a gaffe by either Clinton or Obama would have ranked up there with the blooper heard round the world: Gerry Ford's blunder in saying that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union. That single moment defined Ford as being a stumbling blunderer. Jimmy Carter said later it was the reason he won the presidency in 1976.
But the real gaffe, which Clinton - and Williams and Russert - missed, was when Obama said,
"If al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq...then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad."
There is certainly no IF ABOUT IT...al Qaeda is in Iraq!
If Hillary had caught that misstatement, and brought it up immediately, it could have turned the whole campaign. Forget the hypothetical. It would have highlighted - fairly or unfairly - Obama's lack of experience and lack of foreign policy understanding. It would have exposed him as being just words. If you are Hillary, this is what you wait for. This is what her whole campaign has been about...The gods had answered her prayers.
But she missed it.
But did she miss the opportunity -- or was it missed for her? As Rachel Sklar wrote in her brilliant post,
Hillary tried to speak out, but Brian Williams - no media bias there - cut her off for a commercial that didn't have to happen then, as Sklar pointed out. (Transcript)
SEN. CLINTON: Well, but I have -- I just have to add --
MR. WILLIAMS: I'm sorry, Senator, I've got to --
SEN. CLINTON: Now wait a minute, I have to add --
MR. WILLIAMS: I've got to get us to a break because television doesn't stop.
SEN. CLINTON: -- because the question -- the question was about invading -- invading -- Iraq.
MR. WILLIAMS: Can you hold that thought until we come back from a break?
When they come back from the break, William does not hold the thought, and neither does Hillary, and Williams goes straight to a question for Obama.
Clinton could have brought up the critical misstatement - if she had really seen it - at any time later in the debate........but she never does.
An interesting moment that never was!
In any campaign there are dozens of critical moments, but this one came just before the decisive Texas and Ohio primaries tomorrow, which are going to decide the whole shebang.
When Hillary didn't step in, McCain took up the gauntlet on the gaffe a few days later:
"I have some news...al Qaeda is in Iraq...that's why they call it al Qaeda in Iraq."
Obama countered that al Qaeda was not in Iraq until we invaded...He is absolutely right, but it doesn't answer McCain's question of what to do with al Qaeda in Iraq now.
Maybe if we go away, they will go away.