Democratic Contenders Step Up Attacks in Debate

By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 16, 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nov. 15 -- Sen. Barack Obama, stepping up his criticism of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, directly accused her of being duplicitous in one of several testy exchanges that marked the Democratic debate here Thursday night as one of the most heated of the presidential campaign.

With less than 50 days until primary voting begins, the Democratic contenders showed off newly polished answers on a range of familiar questions. Clinton (N.Y.), the front-runner criticized for sounding evasive during the last debate, on Oct. 30, was much more aggressive, repeatedly challenging her rivals by name, as she had not done in past debates. She also denied playing up her gender, even as she described her delight at the possibility of being a serious contender to become the first female president.

If Clinton was significantly more critical of her rivals, Obama (Ill.) was more direct than he has been in previous debates. In response to his first question from moderator Wolf Blitzer, he said that "what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we've seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues."

The last debate left the Clinton campaign complaining about her rivals' "piling on," and this one appeared to be her attempt to push back. After joking in her opening remarks about wearing a fire-resistant pantsuit, Clinton criticized Obama for not covering millions of Americans in his proposed health-care plan. When former senator John Edwards (N.C.) questioned Clinton's trustworthiness, she accused him of reciting a partisan script.

"I don't mind taking hits on my record, on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook," Clinton said.

Although Edwards continued to play the provocative role, the most memorable moments were between Clinton and Obama. They dueled over health care and then over Social Security, with Obama repeatedly portraying the former first lady as a traditional politician out of touch with average people. Clinton, in turn, suggested that Obama does not understand the partisan nature of Washington -- and therefore would not be able to accomplish his ambitious goals.

Held in Nevada -- a state whose caucuses have been moved up to Jan. 19 to give them greater sway over the nominating process -- the debate touched on regional issues including energy, immigration and nuclear waste storage. Seven candidates shared the stage; it was the fifth of six official debates, and one of numerous unofficial ones, in what has become a protracted campaign season.

Yet the candidates seemed to bring new urgency to the event. For Clinton, it was a chance to change the story line after a weak debate performance two weeks earlier. Asked whether she supports giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants -- the question she flubbed on Oct. 30 -- Clinton simply said "No," leaving it to her rivals to give extended answers. Obama, after a lengthy explanation, said he does support the license proposal; Edwards said he does not.

For Edwards, the event was an opportunity to repeat his charge that Clinton does not represent change. He accused her of supporting the Bush administration over its Iran policy, grouping her in with neoconservatives. "The issue is whether we can have a president that can restore trust for the American people in the president of the United States," Edwards said, drawing applause. "Because I think this president has destroyed that trust, and I think there are fair questions to be asked of all of us, including Senator Clinton."

Clinton had her own criticism of the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, saying he had failed to promote universal health care as he sought the presidential nomination earlier that year.

For Obama, who stood next to Clinton at an adjacent lectern in center stage, the debate was a moment to take on the front-runner directly, even at one point comparing her to Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani.

One of the sharpest exchanges between the two came over health care. Both have proposed ambitious plans to expand coverage, as have others in the race, but Clinton said Obama's plan fails to assure coverage to all Americans while hers does.

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