Underdog Clinton Goes After Obama

The Washington Post's Dan Balz and's Chris Cillizza talk about the Republican and Democratic debates. Video by Chet Rhodes/
By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 6, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 5 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton tried repeatedly to knock Sen. Barack Obama off his footing during a high-stakes debate here on Saturday night -- criticizing his health-care proposal and questioning his ability to bring about change and actually serve as president.

"Words are not action," she said, seeking to draw a distinction between the inspirational rhetoric that catapulted Obama into victory in the Iowa caucuses and what she said was her own long record of being an effective agent of change.

The debate came three days before a pivotal primary here, one that will set the course for the rest of the Democratic nomination battle. Obama's victory in Iowa put Clinton on the defensive and rattled her advisers, who know that a second loss on Tuesday could cripple her campaign. A pair of new polls showed the two front-runners even in New Hampshire, and one of them indicated that women are no longer breaking in favor of Clinton but are now divided between her and Obama.

In comparison with some past debates, Saturday's session produced a role reversal, with Clinton playing the scrappy underdog.

Obama repeatedly fired back at the senator from New York and found an aggressive ally in former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who portrayed Clinton as the "status quo" and himself and Obama as the two candidates promoting real change agendas, albeit with very different styles.

"I didn't hear these kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead," Edwards said. "Every time [Obama] speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack -- every single time."

Clinton has already made modifications on the campaign trail, and she used the debate to repeatedly drive home her message to New Hampshire voters: Don't be swayed by Iowa, and instead take a hard look at Obama before casting your ballots.

She was asked by WMUR's Scott Spradling, a co-moderator of the debate, about polls that show she is not as well liked as Obama. "Well, that hurts my feelings," she responded, to laughter from the audience. That set off a light-hearted moment as the other candidates rushed to say how much they liked her.

But Clinton quickly turned serious to make the argument that she hopes will arrest Obama's momentum before Tuesday: "I think if you want to know what change each of us will bring about, look at what we've done. And there are a lot of differences that I think need to be aired for the voters of New Hampshire."

Later, when Edwards talked about his record in the Senate and cited his role in helping pass the patients' bill of rights in that chamber, and when Obama talked about work he had done to diminish the power of lobbyists in Washington, Clinton called for a reality check.

"I think it's important that all of us be held to the same standard -- that we're all held accountable," she said.

She pointed out that the patients' bill of rights never became law because of opposition by the president and Republicans in the House. And she suggested that Obama was being hypocritical by talking about reducing the power of lobbyists when his New Hampshire campaign chairman lobbies for drug companies.

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