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.
Obama, meanwhile, appeared Tuesday to take responsibility for a memo from his South Carolina press secretary that outlined verbal missteps on race by the Clintons and their allies. His campaign had not previously confirmed ownership. "It is my responsibility to make sure that we're setting a clear tone in our campaign, and I take that responsibility very seriously," Obama said.
Both candidates pointed to the role of surrogates in the spat and said they hope to put it behind them.
"We both have exuberance and sometimes uncontrollable supporters," Clinton said, adding that "neither race nor gender should be part of this campaign." Obama noted: "As Hillary said, our supporters, our staff get overzealous. They start saying things that I would not say."
The Democrats are competing vigorously for the 25 delegates at stake in Nevada and for what each hopes will prove to be additional momentum for their campaigns as they look toward South Carolina's Jan. 26 primary and the 22 contests spread across the country on Feb. 5.
Before Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton had a big lead in polls taken of Democrats in Nevada. But Obama got a major boost late last week with the endorsement of the Culinary Workers Union, considered the most politically powerful labor organization in the state.
One of the sharpest exchanges Tuesday night came over energy policy, nuclear power and the local issue of whether the state's Yucca Mountain should have a national nuclear waste facility.
All three said they would not allow Yucca to become a nuclear waste site, but Clinton challenged both Obama and Edwards on the topic. She said Obama has received considerable money for his campaign from Exelon Corp., "which has spent millions trying to make Yucca Mountain the waste depository."
"I think it's a testimony to my commitment and opposition to Yucca Mountain that, despite the fact that my state has more nuclear power plants than any other state in the country, I've never supported Yucca Mountain," Obama said.
Even sharper differences emerged over the 2005 energy bill and the future of nuclear power. Obama was questioned by Russert on his vote in favor of the bill, asking whether he knew at the time that it would encourage the development of new nuclear power plants.
"I voted for it because it was the single largest investment in clean energy -- solar, wind, biodiesel -- that we had ever seen," he said.
Clinton hit Obama for supporting that bill, calling it "the Dick Cheney lobbyist energy bill. . . . It wasn't just the green light that it gave to more nuclear power. It had enormous giveaways to the oil and gas industries. . . . It was the wrong policy for America.
Edwards then criticized Clinton for taking money from those very interests. "You've raised more money from those people than any candidate, Democrat or Republican," he said. "I think we have to be able to take those people on if we're going to actually change our policy."
When the debate turned to the subject of Iraq, Clinton challenged Obama to co-sponsor legislation in the Senate aimed at preventing President Bush from locking in a long-term U.S. commitment in that country.
Obama reacted coolly. "I think we can work on this, Hillary," he said. He quickly added that he does not think Bush can "tie the hands of the next president," predicting that voters will make clear their displeasure with the administration's policies in November.
Just before the debate ended, Clinton returned to what has become an important theme of her candidacy.
She was asked by Williams whether she was engaging in the politics of fear through some of her campaign rhetoric. She said the United States faces a "dangerous adversary" and said, "I feel prepared and ready to take on what is a daunting but necessary responsibility."
But Obama pushed back, accusing Clinton of using "the fear of terrorism in scoring political points."