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Clinton Apologizes To Obama Over Aide's Drug Remark

The United States can meet its challenges, Obama said, only if "we have the courage to change, if we can bring the country together, if we can push back against the special interests and if we level with the American people about how we're going to solve our problems."

Edwards has also made change a main theme of his candidacy, but he has taken a more pugnacious approach, arguing that the only way to change Washington is by taking the fight to special interests.

"We have a small group of entrenched interests, corporate powers, corporate greed, the most wealthy people in America, who are controlling what's happening in the democracy, and we have to take it back, starting right here in Iowa," Edwards said.

Clinton, Obama and Edwards are in a virtual three-way tie in Iowa, but Thursday's debate gave the other top Democrats -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) -- an opportunity to make their cases to the state's voters on the same stage.

Biden drew one of the toughest questions when he was asked by moderator Carolyn Washburn, the Register editor, about past gaffes of his that suggested racial and ethnic insensitivity.

Biden responded with an impassioned statement, defending his record and commitment on civil rights issues, and saying his political support in Delaware is built on loyalty from minority voters. "My credentials are as good as anyone who's ever run for president of the United States on civil rights," he said.

Obama, who was the subject of one of Biden's gaffes early in the campaign, immediately joined the conversation to defend his Senate colleague and rival. "I have absolutely no doubt about what is in his heart and the commitment that he has made with respect to racial equality in this country," he said.

Dodd, who has struggled along with Biden and Richardson to win more attention, used a moment in the debate to appeal to Iowans not to be swayed by big money or the media. "This isn't about wealth or celebrity," he said. "It's about choosing the best candidate who can win and who will lead our country."

Among the softer questions was the last, in which each candidate was asked to say a few words about the Iowa caucus process. Richardson told Iowans he likes them because they "like underdogs."

"You don't like the national media and the 'smarty-pants' telling you who's going to be the next president," he said.

But the off-camera discussion continued to swirl around Clinton and Obama. Clinton officials said she was personally distressed by the incident and had sought out Obama on the tarmac at Washington's Reagan National Airport before they flew to Iowa for the debate. Though the senators' interactions have been frosty since the start of the campaign nearly a year ago, Clinton wanted, her aides said, to make it clear that she had not approved Shaheen's approach.

Struggling to gain an edge among women in Iowa, Clinton is launching two new advertisements -- one featuring her mother vouching for her, another showing images of her daughter. Chelsea Clinton, 27, joined her mother for the debate, days after making her first appearance on the campaign trail.

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