On January 15, the last time Clinton, Edwards, and Obama met to debate, NBC moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams tried to gin-up some controversy. They re-hashed that week’s “race debate.” Russert shook a fistful of paper, and accused Obama’s camp of fanning those flames. He asked Obama about his New Hampshire polling collapse. He asked Clinton to rebuke a surrogate who pushed drug use innuendo. Williams asked Obama if he felt bad about a nasty-sounding comment he made at an earlier debate.

And so it went for over a half hour, question after question, without a nod the real problems that voters might like hear their next president address. It got so desperate that an audience member actually heckled the moderators—and maybe dropped the F-bomb.

Meanwhile the candidates calmly answered the silly questions, often closing their response with a gentle plea to move on the issues.

What a difference a week makes.

CNN’s first question at last night’s debate was solid: How would a South Carolina family gain from your economic plan? Things got a little testy in an aside on trade policy. And then questioner Suzanne Malveaux tossed in a bit of a gotcha redirect, and asked Obama to address Clinton’s charge that his campaign hasn’t fully accounted for his spending proposals.

And that’s all it took. Soon, Clinton and Obama (and occasionally Edwards) were engaged in a testy back in forth that bounced between past business relationships (Wal-Mart, a “slum landlord,” and trial lawyers), honesty, and Ronald Reagan.

Clearly, something’s changed, and the candidates are now eager to start fights on their own. And that’s lucky for the TV stars who run these debates. They’ll get what they want without having to look bad.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.