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.
"Words are not actions," she said. "And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action. You know, what we've got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality. I have a long record of doing that, of taking on the very interests that you have just rightly excoriated because of the overdue influence that they have in our government."
She said: "You said you would vote against the Patriot Act. You came to the Senate, you voted for it. You said that you would vote against funding for the Iraq war; you came to the Senate and you voted for $300 billion of it."
"I think that we should get into examining everybody's record," she said.
Obama accused Clinton of distorting his record and said voters in New Hampshire will not reward anyone for doing that. "What I think the people of America are looking for are folks who are going to be straight about the issues, and are going to be interested in solving problems and bringing people together," Obama said.
Clinton charged Obama with inconsistency on health care and questioned his plan not to mandate that all Americans buy health insurance. Obama responded that there was a philosophical difference, saying he does not believe that a mandate is necessary because it is the cost of insurance that keeps people from buying it, not a lack of desire to do so.
But Clinton immediately challenged him by pointing out that his plan includes a mandate that parents buy insurance for their children. "Because they don't have a choice," Obama replied.
"Well, they don't have a choice, and you're going to make sure that parents get health care for children," Clinton said. "So, you know, you stopped short of going the distance to make sure that we had a system that could actually deliver health care for everyone."
When she charged that Obama has not been specific about issues, he sought to turn the tables on her, saying he and Edwards have addressed the financial problems of Social Security by calling for raising the cap on wages covered by the payroll tax to force wealthy Americans to pay more.
"You criticized me for that, which is fine," he said. "We have a disagreement on that, but that's hardly because I wasn't specific on it. I was very specific on it."
The stage seemed to divide in half at moments, with Obama and Edwards, the first- and second-place winners of the Iowa caucuses, lining up against Clinton and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who defended the virtues of experience.
Clinton sharpened her case that she has been on the receiving end of so many special-interest attacks that she knows how to fend them off.
And with the nomination on the line, Clinton explicitly mentioned gender as part of her appeal. "I think I am an agent of change. I embody change," she said. "I think having the first woman president is a huge change, with consequences across the country and the world." The audience at Saint Anselm College erupted in cheers.
The look and feel of the Democratic debate was striking: Only one white male candidate, Edwards, was onstage. Nonetheless, apart from Clinton's gender comment, the conversation barely touched on identity politics, instead focusing on what it takes to bring about change in Washington. At one point, ABC moderator Charles Gibson said that in all his years of covering Washington he has seen many candidates promise change.
Still, as she spoke of change, Clinton also turned to her husband's track record in the 1990s as part of her own. Referring to him as "President Clinton," she said his ability to tackle the budget deficit when he took office showed that candidates who promise change sometimes deliver it.
Richardson added: "Whatever happened to experience? Is experience a leper? We want to change this country. But you have to have, you have to know how to do it. And there's nothing wrong with having experience. So, I love change. We all are for change. But the question is, examine the record of those that in the past produced change."
Before the debate, Clinton rolled out a new campaign approach, dramatically shortening her stump speech and taking dozens of questions from voters in an effort to appear more at ease. Her campaign officials said the emphasis on questions and answers was designed to draw a contrast with Obama. They hoped that the more Clinton showed her command of the issues, the more it would force voters to question whether Obama has the same mastery of the issues and, ultimately, the readiness to be president.
Clinton's shift came as a CNN-WMUR poll taken by the University of New Hampshire showed Obama and Clinton tied at 33 percent, with Edwards at 20 percent. A week ago, Clinton led Obama, 34 percent to 30 percent. In a striking demographic development for Obama, he now runs evenly with Clinton among women for the first time (Clinton 33 percent, Obama 32); a week ago Clinton had an 11-point edge among women.
Staff writers Shailagh Murray and Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.