Voices Are Raised in Democratic Debate

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama engaged in an angry exchange Monday over past statements on Republican ideas and the words of former President Clinton in a presidential debate five days before the pivotal South Carolina primary. Video by AP
By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C., Jan. 21 -- The Democratic presidential front-runners clashed angrily in a debate Monday night, with Sen. Barack Obama accusing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband of repeatedly distorting his positions and Clinton asserting that Obama is trying to run away from his record.

Their sharp exchanges in the nationally televised forum underscored the Democrats' increasingly fierce competition five days before a pivotal primary test in South Carolina.

The debate turned personal almost from the outset, as Obama accused the Clintons of misrepresenting his comments about Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party's ideas, as well as his record on the Iraq war. "That is simply not true," he said.

Clinton responded forcefully: "It is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern."

With three major contests behind them in the 2008 campaign, there is still no clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination. South Carolina's primary, where more than half of the electorate is expected to be African American, will be the last big test before they head into Feb. 5, when more than half of the pledged national convention delegates will be chosen in nearly two dozen state contests.

In the debate, Clinton and Obama offered perhaps the most pointed criticisms of one another in the campaign. Obama went after Clinton during a discussion on economic stimulus by recalling his years as a community organizer in Chicago, adding: "While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart."

And he brought up Bill Clinton's campaign surrogate role by chiding, "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."

Hillary Clinton, reacting to Obama's discussion of Republican ideas, struck back by saying: "I'm just reacting to the fact, yes, they did have ideas, and they were bad ideas. . . . Bad for America, and I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor [Tony] Rezko in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago."

Obama has been dogged by his connections to Rezko, an indicted businessman; he recently returned $40,000 in campaign contributions linked to Rezko.

Former senator John Edwards (N.C..) pursued Obama over his voting record in the Illinois legislature, seeking to turn the forum into a three-way brawl. But after being repeatedly sidelined by the back-and-forth, Edwards complained: "Are there three people in this debate, not two?"

After the initial tense exchanges Monday night, the three candidates went on to hold an extended discussion about racial inequality and gender on a day that began with all of them paying tribute to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Obama was questioned about a remark by House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), a Clinton supporter, that "black voters should not do what makes us feel good, but what's good for our great nation."

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