WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrat Barack Obama emerged on Thursday from the latest campaign debate with aides insisting he can still catch front-runner Hillary Clinton and defending his decision not to go on the attack against her.
While former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards frequently pointed out differences with Clinton at a Wednesday night debate in Hanover, New Hampshire, Obama largely held his fire and stayed above the fray.
A top aide insisted afterward Obama had never intended to go into a more critical mode at the debate despite widespread anticipation that he would do so and reported concern from some of his donors that the Illinois senator needed a breakthrough performance to shake up the race for the White House in November 2008.
Obama campaign manager David Axelrod told reporters that Obama, who leads the Democratic race in raising money for his White House run, preferred to demonstrate a "common purpose to our politics rather than divisiveness and ... political point-scoring."
The debate appeared not to have changed the makeup of a campaign in which Clinton, a senator from New York, enjoys a comfortable lead in national polls and despite what her rivals called a tendency to dodge questions.
In New Hampshire in particular, a CNN/WMUR poll gave her a 23-point lead over Obama in that important early voting state, 43 percent to 20 percent, widened considerably from a nine-point margin of 36 percent to 27 percent in July.
Axelrod said Obama was "on the schedule that we need to be on to do what we need to do."
"We've always viewed this process as a sequential process that begins in January in Iowa and moves on to New Hampshire and I'm perfectly willing to concede the lead to her in ... September and October," Axelrod said.
As an example that an early front-runner does not always last, Axelrod urged reporters to consider the case of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was leading the polls at this stage of the 2004 Democratic campaign and was defeated by Sen. John Kerry.
"She's the quasi-incumbent in this race," he said of Clinton. "She's 100 percent known. She's been in American politics for 20 years. She's been running for president in a de facto way for some time. So we have been catching up from the beginning, and we understand that this is a process."
The Clinton camp is happy to ride the lead that she has built.
"We went in the front-runner, we come out the front-runner. I think people are still wondering what really Obama's strategy is, but I don't think anything changed," said Mark Penn, a top Clinton strategist.
In what could provide grist for future debates, both the Obama team and that of Edwards said they felt Clinton was evasive on some crucial issues, such as how best to extend the solvency of the Social Security pension system for older Americans.
Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, said Clinton even dodged a question on who she preferred to win the World Series, the Chicago Cubs in her home state of Illinois or the New York Yankees in her adopted state.
"I'm a sports fan. I'm not for two teams," Mrs. Edwards said.
Both Obama and Edwards said clearly that raising Social Security taxes on wealthier Americans should be considered under any plan to save the system, while Clinton carefully avoided the issue, saying it would be part of any bipartisan negotiation.
Edwards is running a distant third in the polls while resting his hopes on winning the Iowa caucuses in January and using that to catapult him into a lead position. Edwards was sharply critical of Clinton's positions on both Iraq and Iran at the debate.
The Clinton camp was not impressed.
"No one laid a glove on her," said Clinton strategist Mandy Grunwald.