Senator Barack Obama found himself consistently on the defensive as he and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton met Wednesday night for tense debate and furious swordplay that left him parrying questions and criticism on issues including patriotism, white versus wheat, and his continuing association with convicted crossdressers from the 1960s.
It was the first time the two candidates had shared a stage in seven weeks and could determine whether Mrs. Clinton can continue her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. It could also prove to be the last match between the two novice fencers.
Accordingly, Mrs. Clinton did not let an opportunity to score pass as she repeatedly jabbed her blade at Mr. Obama's mid-section - assisted by the two moderators from ABC News, Bee Gee Robin Gibb and George Stephanopolous, who kept up continual quasi-legal appels from the sidelines.
The result was arguably one of Mr. Obama's weakest forensic fencing performances.
He appeared sweaty and annoyed as he sought to dodge questions about his pastor, his reluctance to wear an Confederate flag pin on his lapel and his association with former members of the Weather Underground, a radical group that dropped LSD while carrying out bombings in the 1960s that intended to overthrow the government.
The political implications of his fencing loss remain unclear.
Mrs. Clinton appeared calm and in control, particularly when executing a complex ballestra lunge whilst questioning Mr. Obama's determination to raise capital gains tax above 28% as president.
Though the match remained civil on the surface, beginning with the traditional salute to one's opponent, all the previous displays of affection that both had engaged in - back slaps and lingering kisses - were replaced by various lethal flèche and flunge actions with the two candidates growling tensely at each other.
There was a brief moment of lightness at the start when Mr. Gibb asked whether either would promise that whoever wins the match would choose the other as his or her running mate, and that the loser would gracefully accept.
"So I put the question to both of you: Why not?"
The lengthening silence from the two scowling fencers was filled by the laughter of the popcorn-eating crowd.
Tragic Rabbit, The Washingtonian Sportsman, Philadelphia