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."
Obama responded: "I think Charlie's right in principle. Now, obviously, he and I differ in terms of what would be best for the nation." But later, he added: "I don't want us to get drawn into this notion that somehow this is going to be a race that splits along racial lines."
Obama was also asked whether he agreed with a statement by African American author Toni Morrison about Bill Clinton that "this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime."
Obama paused for several moments, then responded: "Well, I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African American community, and still does. And I think that's well earned." He went on to add: "I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill's dancing abilities, you know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother."
"Well, I'm sure that can be arranged," Clinton said, as the crowd laughed.
The Democratic race has been roiled by racial issues over the past two weeks, after statements made by both Clintons and a key surrogate that were interpreted by some black leaders as attempts to unfairly undermine Obama's candidacy.
A week ago, Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson, a longtime ally of the Clintons, used his introduction of Hillary Clinton at an event in South Carolina to drop a veiled reference to Obama's previously acknowledged drug use as a young man. Johnson at first denied that was his intent but later apologized to Obama.
Tensions between the Obama and Clinton campaigns have risen sharply in the past few days, with Obama and his advisers outspoken in their criticism of the former president. In an interview Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Obama accused Bill Clinton of distorting some of his recent statements.
The candidate and his advisers are upset with statements that both Clintons made about Obama's position on the Iraq war, his campaign's efforts in the Nevada caucus and his remarks about Reagan.
"One of the things that we're going to have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he's making statements that are not factually accurate," he said on ABC.
When excerpts of the interview leaked out Sunday night, Bill Clinton shot back at a Buffalo event that Obama "said President Reagan was the engine of innovation and did more, had a more lasting impact on America than I did. And then the next day he said, 'In the '90s, the good ideas came out from the Republicans,' " he continued. "Which it'll be costly maybe down the road for him because it's factually not accurate."
For Obama, the Reagan issue represents a potential sore point in the nomination battle. Praising Reagan -- even in an objective historical context -- is not a recipe for success with liberal Democrats or African Americans, among whom Reagan was not popular.
The issue of race is also sensitive for Obama. He needs strong black turnout to win South Carolina and create momentum as he heads into the 22-state showdown Feb. 5. But he has sought throughout his campaign not to make his a racially based candidacy.
Monday's debate was co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and was aired nationally on CNN. Wolf Blitzer served as moderator, with questions from CNN correspondents Joe Johns and Suzanne Malveaux.
Obama badly needs a victory in South Carolina after consecutive losses in New Hampshire and Nevada, and he will devote most of his campaign time this week to barnstorming the state.
Clinton, meanwhile, is scheduled to spend Tuesday and Wednesday campaigning in California, Arizona and New Mexico, all vital states in the Feb. 5 coast-to-coast mega-primary and all with significant Hispanic populations. Aides said Bill Clinton will cover for her in South Carolina on days when she is not in the state. He will spend much of his time wooing African American voters, who appear to be moving in large numbers to Obama.
The three candidates had spent the morning together in Columbia, S.C., attending a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally on the steps of the state Capitol.
The rally drew supporters from all three camps, who cheered and waved placards as their candidates rose to speak. But the undercurrent was Obama's candidacy, viewed in deeply emotional terms across the South. One by one, local speakers addressed the potential gravity of this Saturday's primary. Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina NAACP, told the crowd: "You will determine the course of history for generations to come."
Clinton portrayed all three Democratic candidates -- a woman, an African American and a Southerner -- as groundbreaking figures. "That we stand here is a measure of Dr. King's life's work and his legacy," she said. Clinton singled out Obama for special praise, calling him "an extraordinary young African American man, with so much to contribute."
But at a King Day service Monday morning in Atlanta, the Clinton-Obama feud still simmered. At Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had been co-pastor, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin spoke to a crowd of 2,000 that included Clinton's husband in a front pew. Franklin, an Obama supporter, said the country is on the "cusp of turning the impossible into reality."
"Yes, this is reality," she said, "not fantasy or fairy tales." Clinton had drawn fire for calling Obama's claim of consistent opposition to the Iraq war a "fairy tale" on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. According to news reports, when the crowd rose to cheer Franklin, Clinton remained seated, clapping politely.