Democratic Debate

Clinton, Obama Distance Selves From Talk of Race

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won Michigan's Republican presidential primary on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama participated in the MSNBC debate in Las Vegas.
By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 15 -- After a week of bitter intraparty disputes over the issue of race, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) extended an olive branch to Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) on Tuesday night and declared that she and the other Democratic presidential candidates are "all family" in a nationally televised debate.

Obama returned the gesture, acknowledging on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday that both Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) are committed to racial equality. Despite their charitable tone, however, the three top contenders continued to challenge one another over substantive issues, especially energy and the economy, salient issues in Nevada, where caucuses will be held Saturday.

Obama and Clinton, in one of their sharpest distinctions of the night, offered starkly different visions of the presidency. Obama said he believes that the job is about "having a vision for where the country needs to go" rather than ensuring the "paperwork is being shuffled effectively," while Clinton emphasized the need for understanding how the system works.

"I do think that being president is the chief executive officer. I respect what Barack said about setting the vision, setting the tone, bringing people together," Clinton said. "But I think you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy."

After a week of rancor, the civil discourse of the night was notable. Obama went so far as to say he regrets a comment he made in a Jan. 5 debate, when he described Clinton as "likable enough."

"Well, I absolutely regret it, because that wasn't how it was intended. I mean, folks were giving Hillary a hard time about likability. And my intention was to say, 'I think you're plenty likable,' " Obama said, drawing laughter from the audience at the Cashman Center near downtown Las Vegas.

Tuesday's debate was the first since Clinton scored a stunning victory in New Hampshire a week earlier, defying polls that showed Obama with a clear lead a day before the balloting. Her victory revived a candidacy badly shaken by Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses and set the Democrats on a course that could see their nominating contest carry on well past the avalanche of Super Tuesday contests in three weeks.

Obama said he did not buy in to the theory -- advocated by some of his supporters -- that he fared worse in New Hampshire than polls predicted because voters had misled pollsters about their racial prejudices.

"I think what happened was that Senator Clinton ran a good campaign up in New Hampshire," Obama said.

The two-hour debate -- moderated by NBC anchor Brian Williams with questions from Tim Russert, the moderator of "Meet the Press," and Natalie Morales, national correspondent for the "Today" show -- drew a late challenge from the campaign of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), who filed suit protesting the decision of the sponsors to exclude him from participating. Late Tuesday, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that MSNBC, which was airing the debate nationally, did not have to include Kucinich.

The flurry of legal maneuvering came as both Clinton and Obama were calling for a cessation to the hostilities that had surrounded their candidacies, amid accusations of attempting to inject race into the Democratic campaign. The conversation had left Edwards largely on the sidelines.

Clinton had come under fire for statements she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, had made during the previous week, as well as for a remark Sunday by ally Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, in which he appeared to remind voters about Obama's admitted use of drugs as a youth. Johnson later said he was talking about Obama's days as a community organizer. Clinton at first defended Johnson's remarks Tuesday night but went on to say that he had been out of bounds.

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