By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C., Jan. 21 -- The clash between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton Monday night was a debate long waiting to happen, and at the heart of it was the man who was not on stage: former president Bill Clinton.
Since Obama's victory in Iowa, the Clintons have responded with a methodically aggressive campaign. With his own campaign now on the defensive, Obama came to Monday's debate determined to confront his principal rival for the Democratic presidential nomination with a cry of foul.
The result was the most heated and acrimonious exchange of the long race. The opening minutes included charges and countercharges, personal attacks and some of the harshest language either of the two leading Democratic candidates has used, particularly face to face.
"I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," Obama sarcastically noted during one exchange.
So intense was their dispute that former senator John Edwards (N.C.) repeatedly demanded the opportunity to be heard.
Democratic strategists differed on whether Clinton or Obama emerged as the winner of the two-hour session. Some said Obama came off at points as defensive and working too hard to explain his record and his positions. Others said Clinton was so aggressive that it could cost her support. Edwards's backers hope that he will benefit if voters are turned off by his rivals' tone and temperament.
The encounter had two audiences: voters in South Carolina, a state Obama must win and is expected to win, largely on the strength of his solid support in the African American community, and voters in the 22 states with primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5. Clinton is concentrating her efforts there in hopes of gaining a decisive advantage.
Obama has learned how formidable the Clintons' political machine can be, particularly when its future is on the line. The former president has played the lead role in taking the fight to the senator from Illinois. Obama and his advisers have been seething about what both Clintons -- but particularly the former president -- have said about him over the past two weeks.
Coupled with Hillary Clinton's surprise victory in New Hampshire two weeks ago and her bruising win in the Nevada caucus last Saturday, the comments have raised frustrations in the Obama campaign to the boiling point.
Relations between Obama and Clinton have been chilly from the start of this contest, but their hostility has intensified as the primary-caucus season has opened. It was unmistakable on Monday.
At one point, Obama, seeking to demonstrate his long commitment to displaced workers, said he had been working with them on the streets of Chicago at a time when Clinton was on the corporate board of Wal-Mart. "I was fighting these fights," he said.
Clinton quickly retaliated: "I was fighting against those [Republican] ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor . . . in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago."
But beneath those personal barbs was disgruntlement and anger about a series of comments -- some from the Clintons, some from Obama -- that have been flying back and forth over the past two weeks.
One came from Bill Clinton, who attacked Obama's assertion of consistent opposition to the Iraq war as a "fairy tale." Those words rippled through the African American community as a slight against Obama's candidacy -- drawing warnings from prominent black leaders to the former president to tone down his language.
Most recent was an interview in which Obama described former president Ronald Reagan as a transformative leader and also said that over the past 10 to 15 years, the Republicans were more a party of ideas than were the Democrats. In the context of a Democratic nomination battle, those are risky words, even if there is some historical basis for them.
Hillary Clinton pounced on Obama on Monday night, as Bill Clinton had done over the past few days.
"They were bad ideas for America," she said. "They were ideas like privatizing Social Security, like moving back from a balanced budget and a surplus to deficit and debt."
Obama protested that the Clintons had deliberately distorted his words. "Hillary, we just had the tape," he said. "You just said that I complimented the Republican ideas. That is not true."
The Clintons know that her strength has been with core Democrats (other than African Americans), and that the more they can raise doubts about Obama among these voters, the better she will do in the Feb. 5 primaries and caucuses.
In the second half of the debate, tempers cooled and the three candidates returned to a more civil tone. But the issue of Bill Clinton's role came up again, when his wife was asked whether he is overshadowing her candidacy and her message.
"I think that he is very much advocating on my behalf, and I appreciate that," she said. "He is a tremendous asset. And he feels very strongly about this country, and what's at stake and what our future should be." She added that "this campaign is not about our spouses."
But for now it is partly about Bill Clinton. He has emerged as more than his wife's chief surrogate. He is playing a role almost akin to that of a vice presidential candidate in a general election, leading the charge against the other party's nominee.
His stature, as Obama said Monday, commands media attention and his popularity among Democratic voters adds weight to whatever he says. When he has spoken publicly against Obama, or in strong defense of his wife, his words have been amplified beyond that of any other supporter of the senator from New York.
That role has caused consternation in the Democratic Party among people who believe Clinton has crossed a line a former president should not cross. That debate will continue through the primaries, but on Monday Obama decided he had to push back.
This is a fight the Clinton campaign welcomes. But it is one that threatens to have long-term consequences if both sides cannot find a way to pull back. Given the stakes of this nomination battle, that seems unlikely anytime soon.