(CNN) - John McCain has received some unwelcome praise over the last couple weeks - at least as he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination.
First he was endorsed by The New York Times, a newspaper often criticized by conservatives. Then, former President Bill Clinton said wife, Hillary, and McCain are 'very close.'
Now Barack Obama is getting in on the applause. At Thursday's debate, he lauded McCain for originally voting against the Bush tax cuts.
"I respect McCain who in the first two rounds of Bush tax cuts said it is irresponsible that we have never before cut taxes at the same time as we are going into war," Obama said.
McCain voted against Bush's tax cuts in both 2001 and 2003, but he is now supporting the extension - a fact Obama went on to take issue with.
"But somewhere along the line, the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels and now he is in favor of extending Bush's tax cuts that went to some of the wealthiest Americans who don't need them and were not even asking for them," he said.
– CNN Producer Alexander Mooney
On the issue of experience, Obama’s trying to say “me, too.” On the issue of unity, Clinton’s trying to say “me, too.”
Both have a tough time making their cases. For Clinton, it’s especially difficult: Despite her Senate record of working with Republicans, she’s known as a tough partisan – he’s viewed as a consensus-builder. But now people want what they thought President Bush would be – a uniter, not a divider. It’s very tough to imagine a Clinton bringing people together.
– CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider
They’re both turning their fire on Republicans, not on each other. The most striking thing is the way they’re minimizing their differences - contrasting themselves with the GOP, not with each other. They’ve both gone to the edge recently, and realized that approach wasn’t working. The Clinton campaign has been trying to get the point across that Barack Obama doesn’t have enough fight – that’s he’s too amicable to fight the Republicans in the fall. They were trying to use Bill Clinton to paint Obama as a wuss. But that created more of a problem for them than for him.
Obama always comes across as eloquent, and speaks in a language that people identify with more readily – Clinton comes across as more polished and knowledgeable. You see her policy skills, and his people skills. That’s why this is such a tough choice for Democrats. The toughest choice in politics comes between politicians who are basically in agreement – it comes down to trivialities. It’s easier to decide when the differences are deep and profound – and the polls reflect that. Most of their supporters could go either way.
Related: Watch Obama and Clinton discuss their differences
Clinton is smart to steer the blame for immigration woes to employers – it’s a great political strategy for addressing this thorny issue.
The core of the immigration debate is the naturalization process Clinton described tonight – is that amnesty? She’s appealing to emotions; Obama’s going for the logical arguments. It’s tough for Obama to argue to people that they’re not seeing what they think they’re seeing – that immigration itself isn’t the problem.
Obama has a big problem with the Latino vote. The problem isn’t Latino racism – it’s that Latinos have strong ties to the Clintons. This is where his stronger views on the issue – in favor of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, and other measures – can help him gain credibility with the base on the issue.
Another path to the Latino vote: Ted Kennedy’s support. Obama’s raising Ted Kennedy tonight the same way his Republican counterparts raised Ronald Reagan’s last night – in hopes of roughly the same results.
Obama’s also using the issue to point attention to one of Clinton’s biggest perceived weaknesses: her reputation for political calculation.
Still: they’re spending more time calling attention to their similarities than they are to their dofferences – a huge contrast with the Republican field.
Related: Watch the candidates debate immigration
–CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider
Sens Obama and Clinton are avoiding the rancor of the recent Democratic debate in South Carolina. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
The tone of this debate is far more sophisticated and grown up than the debate last night – perhaps in part because they realized that debate didn’t do any favors for the Republican candidates’ reputations.
They are aiming their attacks at the opposing party – not each other.
Both candidates are offering an eloquent Democratic defense of taxes. Their answers are very similar – they’d pay for them by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Where Democrats have gotten in trouble in the past is, Republicans say the rich are first and the middle class is next.
But Clinton and Obama clearly feel that the Bush experience has changed everything – they can feel confident talking tax hikes without fear. The taboo is off tax talk – it’s no longer the third rail.
Obama is very clever, to mention Ted Kennedy early in the evening – and follow that reference with a reminder of his bi-partisan credentials. This is a very important point: no major policy initiative in the United States can be passed without bi-partisan consensus. That’s the way our system was designed, and he understands that.
Meanwhile, Clinton is seizing universal health care as her issue – saying, in a very subtle way: I’m for universal health care, and he’s not. This is a core Democratic issue
She also takes a much more conciliatory view of insurance companies – we have to work with them instead of fighting them. That may not be a view that resonates with Edwards supporters.
Related: Watch the candidates debate health care
Obama’s being more critical of Clinton’s positions, and more explicit in spelling out their differences. But he’s doing it in a way that isn’t very personal – it’s all about the issues. They’re both trying to avoid reprising last night’s tawdry tangle between Romney and McCain – or their own testy face-off at the South Carolina debate.
Their argument on the idea of health care mandates is a substantive and sophisticated one. There’s a good argument to be made for forcing people who don’t want to buy health care to pay into the system, and share the risk.
It’s not clear how the idea plays among voters. But people don’t like to be forced to do anything. Some of them would rather buy cars or vacations to Hawaii. It’s a very complicated argument, and it’s not clear voters will necessarily buy into Clinton’s position.
Still, Clinton has learned from her bitter experience in 1993 - and people have accepted it. Her failure has not discredited her. People believe that she learned something from it.
Hillary Clinton’s opening statement was pitch-perfect. She aimed her remarks not against Obama, but against the Bush administration. She’s making the case against Republicans, not her rival, and that will resonate with the Democratic crowd.
But raising health care early is a smart way to draw a distinction between the two of them. Their approach on that issue may well be the single biggest policy difference between them. Still, notably, she didn’t use the opportunity to criticize his position – instead, she advertised her own.
Related: Watch Hillary Clinton's opening statement
Related: Watch Barack Obama's opening statement
John Edwards' name makes an early appearance in Obama’s very first sentence on-stage tonight. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will be looking to attract John Edwards supporters tonight – watch for how often they mention poverty.