I had never attended a presidential debate before, and so yesterday’s Barack-vs.-Hillary “conversation” (classy but too chummy and cordial to be called a dispute) felt special. I lined up in the main foyer to receive my entrance wristband around 1:30 pm. The thunderous “Oh-bah-MAH!” chanting outside the Kodak theatre sounded like a revolution on the palace steps. (A slightly unnerved female Clinton supporter I was standing next to said, “What’s that shouting?”) Tom Hayden was hanging around and joshing. Lots of amiable chatting and time-killing.

I was inside the theatre, which seems a bit smaller in actuality than it has on those Oscar telecasts, by 2:40 pm. I quickly found a pair of choice unmarked seats in the fourth row center section on the right-side aisle. (Right behind Rob Reiner, as it later turned out.)

No cell phones or PDAs were allowed, so the next couple of hours was basically taken up by newspapers, schmoozing and eyeballing. Steven Spielberg (seated next to wife Kate Capshaw and producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall) was on the other side of the house, same fourth row. Garry Shandling, Pierce Brosnan, Amy Pascal, Amber Tamblyn, ICM chief Jeff Berg. Leonardo DiCaprio, his dad George and publicist Ken Sunshine slipped in at the last minute; so did Diane Keaton and Stevie Wonder.

I said hello to screenwriter and good hombre Larry Karaszewski (1408, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Ed Wood). Breitbart.com‘s Andrew Breitbart, Politico‘s Jeff Ressner, “Loot” author and Washington Post contributor Sharon Waxman, producer and Democratic consultant Lawrence O’Donnell, among others.

CNN host Wolf Blitzer came out a few minutes early to chat a bit and warm the audience up. “Any questions?” he said at one point. “Where’s Anderson?,” someone called out. “He was on last night,” Blitzer said. “What’s your favorite all-time movie?,” someone said. Blitzer responded, “Uhmm, favorite movie, let’s see…Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?”

Did the “debate” seem the same from the orchestra as it did to TV viewers? I know that I sensed early on that the atmosphere of niceness and deference was deflating the juice potential, but it was obviously intentional. As one guy observed, “Clinton is ahead in polling and she didn’t want to upset that, so she played it nice and safe. Obama is catching up fast and he didn’t want to upset that, so he played it nice and safe.”

The Iraq War discussion definitely went in Barack’s favor, but with his usual delicate allusions (he was very much the conciliator, uniter, peacemaker) it was left to Blitzer to strike the Hillary blows, of which there were at least two.

Clinton didn’t do very well in fending off the voting-for-Iraq questions. Obama’s statement that the real problem with Iraq was “the mindset that got us in the war in the first place” cut right to the quick.

We were watching carefully delivered performances, of course, but I still found myself slightly warming to Hillary, being already permanently warmed up to Barack and against my better judgment. She was sharp, poised and very attuned. I said to myself at one point, “She is the enemy of of the ’08 wave-dream that has carried Obama aloft and a very likely catalyst of a McCain victory in November, but she’s very sharp and shrewd. I’ll be miserable if she’s nominated, but I suppose I’ll have to hold my nose and vote for her. I prefer her to McCain.”

Hillary and Barack, suddenly three-dimensional and organically alive instead if the 2-D figures they’ve been all along, stood at the edge of the stage and shook hands and signed programs for about ten minutes after the cameras went dark. A lot of people pushed forward for this, but I just stood there mesmerized. What a sight, what a thing to see first-hand.

A Frank Luntz focus group on Fox felt overwhelmingly that Obama prevailed over Clinton, but the people I spoke to felt it was more of a draw. Shandling told me he felt a little noddy during the first half. Breitbart felt that Obama did fine, but that he “lost” in a sense because he didn’t decisively score against Clinton. I gave the slight edge to Obama, but basically felt they both came off well because of the classy-dignified thing. Nobody’s apple cart was pushed over.

The after-party around the Roosevelt hotel pool (waiters serving little juicy burgers, crab cakes and quesadillas, and lots of heaters going full-blast) was relaxing and not overly crowded. I’d noticed Stevie Wonder standing up and vigorously applauding when Blitzer talked about Obama and Clinton being the ultimate “dream ticket,” so I went over and asked him what kind of dream — Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama? The former, he answered, but you know Wonder’s songs and lyrics — he’s into anyone or anything coming together and feeling the love and blissing out.