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.
"His plan would leave 15 million Americans out," she said. "That's about the population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire." Those are the first four states that will vote in the Democratic presidential race next year.
Obama countered that the principal difference in their plans is that Clinton's mandates that all Americans buy health insurance while his does not. "I don't think that the problem with the American people is that they are not being forced to get health care," he said. "The problem is, they can't afford it. And that is why my plan provides the mechanism to make sure that they can."
The difference between the plans is significant. Obama decided not to include a mandate and instead has said he would seek to make insurance more affordable. Clinton, too, offers incentives to individuals and to small businesses to make insurance affordable.
Many health-care policy experts say that, without some kind of mandate, it will be difficult to achieve universal coverage. Obama's policy advisers have said that they believe his plan ultimately will provide insurance for everyone, but that if it falls short, he would be prepared to include a mandate at a later point.
On foreign policy, the candidates dealt with questions on Pakistan, Iraq and Iran. The lengthiest discussion was about how the United States should deal with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has declared a state of emergency, rounded up dissenters and put opposition leader Benazir Bhutto under house arrest. All said the United States should increase pressure on him, but they differed on how far to push him.
This led to a debate about whether there are times when human rights should take precedence over national security. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would condition aid to Pakistan as a way of asserting the preeminence of human rights. Obama said the two are complementary, but Clinton and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) said national security should always be the first priority of any president.
The candidates took up the issue of Iran during a session that included questions from the audience but restated their long-standing positions, which find Clinton at odds with her rivals over a Senate resolution labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.
Toward the end of the debate, Obama and Clinton got into another argument over Social Security. Obama, in response to a voter's question about looming retirements in the baby-boom generation, said he would consider raising the amount of wages that are subject to payroll taxes, currently $97,500. Clinton has said she would not propose any specific ideas for Social Security other than restoring fiscal discipline to the federal budget.
But after Obama's statement, she criticized a simple raising of the cap, saying she did not want to save Social Security on the backs of the middle class. "If you lift the cap completely, that is a $1 trillion tax increase," she said. "I don't think we need to do that."
Obama delivered a stern response, saying that only 6 percent of taxpayers earn more than $97,000.
"It is the upper class," he said. "You know, this is the kind of thing that I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, where we start playing with numbers. We start playing with numbers in order to try to make a point. And we can't do that."
Clinton took issue with his interpretation, saying she represents firefighters in New York who would find raising the cap burdensome.
Clinton talked at length about her role as a female candidate, saying she had not played the "gender card." Pressed to explain why, in recent weeks, she had described the campaign as a "boys' club," Clinton paused and looked at the questioner. "Well, it is clear, I think, from women's experiences that from time to time, there may be some impediments," she said.
Asked whether she is exploiting her status as a woman, Clinton said: "I'm not exploiting anything at all. I'm not playing, as some people say, the gender card here in Las Vegas. I'm just trying to play the winning card." She added: "People are not attacking me because I'm a woman. They're attacking me because I'm ahead."