By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 1, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 31 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama set aside personal hostilities here Thursday night but sharply disagreed on who has the better combination of leadership and experience to defeat Republicans in November and lead the country as president.
Heading toward a critical round of primaries and caucuses on Tuesday, the two remaining contenders for the Democratic nomination focused their strongest words on Republicans, particularly President Bush and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the party's presidential front-runner.
For almost two hours, Obama and Clinton examined their differences on the Iraq war, health care, immigration and governing style, with Clinton emphasizing her lengthy r¿sum¿ and experience and Obama challenging her about judgment and the ability to inspire the country.
"It is imperative that we have a president, starting on Day One, who can begin to solve our problems, tackle these challenges and seize the opportunities that I think await," Clinton said.
"Senator Clinton, I think, fairly has claimed that she's got the experience on Day One," Obama later replied. "And part of the argument that I'm making in this campaign is that it is important to be right on Day One."
There were occasional barbs, but nothing that approached the candidates' war of words in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last week. When Thursday's debate ended, the two rose and exchanged private comments amid smiles and laughter.
"We're having such a good time," Clinton said toward the end of the forum. "We are. We are. We're having a wonderful time." "Yes, absolutely," Obama agreed.
Each candidate had good moments. The two dueled to a draw during a long and detailed discussion about their competing health-care plans. Clinton scored points on immigration when Obama challenged her leadership on the issue. Obama rallied when the issue of the Iraq war was raised late in the debate.
Neither candidate appeared willing to risk the kind of clash that marked their battle before the South Carolina primary. Instead, they hewed to strategies designed to give them the upper hand after this Tuesday's 22 Democratic primaries and caucuses in what remains a fierce and extremely competitive nomination battle.
In the first debate since former senator John Edwards (N.C.) ended his candidacy, Clinton and Obama remarked that no matter the outcome of the contest, Democrats will make history by selecting either the first woman or the first African American as their presidential nominee.
"What I think is exciting is that the way we are looking at the Democratic field, now down to the two of us, is we're going to get big change," Clinton said.
Her answer came in response to a question about the endorsement Obama received Monday from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and how she responded to the liberal icon's call for a new generation of leadership to match that of the late president John F. Kennedy, his brother.
Clinton, a senator from New York, said both candidates have passionate supporters and prominent endorsers. But she added: "You have to, as voters, determine who you think can be the best president, to tackle all those problems on Day One, waiting in the Oval Office, who can be the best nominee for the Democratic Party to be able to withstand whatever they decide to do on the other side of the aisle, and come out victorious."
Obama, a senator from Illinois, countered that the presidency is more than that and that he believes he is better equipped than Clinton to provide the country with the leadership needed after eight years of a Bush administration and an era of polarized politics.
"We are bringing in a whole generation of new voters, which I think is exciting," he said. "And part of the task, I believe, of leadership is the hard nuts-and-bolts of getting legislation passed and managing the bureaucracy. But part of it is also being able to call on the American people to reach higher."
Clinton was challenged to explain why it would be good for the country to have another Clinton in charge after 20 years in which either a Bush or a Clinton has occupied the Oval Office.
"It did take a Clinton to clean after the first Bush, and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush," she said to enthusiastic applause.
The Kodak Theatre, site of the Academy Awards ceremony in the heart of Hollywood, served as the venue for Thursday's forum, and the pre-debate spectacle on the streets outside rivaled Oscar night. Hollywood stars scrambled to get what was considered one of the hottest tickets in town, and while the audience was filled with television and movie luminaries, many others came up empty-handed, according to reports.
The debate was sponsored by CNN, the Los Angeles Times and the Politico Web site. CNN's Wolf Blitzer served as moderator, with Doyle McManus of the Times and Jeanne Cummings of Politico also questioning the candidates.
Clinton and Obama were solicitous of Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, eager to win a possible endorsement from their departed rival and even more focused on appealing to his supporters, who could help make the difference in Tuesday's contests.
On the subject of the Iraq war -- arguably the issue that has shaped the course of the Democratic contest -- Obama made a crisp if familiar argument: that his judgment about the invasion reflected a broader skill for understanding the world. Obama also said his consistent opposition to the war would make him a stronger candidate in the general election.
"You know, Senator Clinton mentioned the issue of gravitas and judgment," he said. "I think it is much easier for us to have the argument when we have a nominee who says, 'I always thought this was a bad idea, this was a bad strategy. It was not just a problem of execution.' " Clinton countered that she had believed that sending weapons inspectors back into Iraq at the time Congress approved the war resolution in 2002 was a "credible idea," repeating her contention that she did not know that Bush was going to invade.
She argued that she believes in "coercive diplomacy," but when faced with repeated questions about her decision not to support an alternate measure, she sought to focus on comparing their Senate records.
"I certainly respect Senator Obama making his speech in 2002 against the war," she said. "And then, when he came to the Senate, we've had the same policy because we were both confronting the same reality of trying to deal with the consequences of George Bush's action."
Early on, the pair sparred over health care, each citing it as an area in which they have policy differences. They dwelled on health insurance, focusing on details and differing on how to bring the most people into a national insurance network. Still, on a night when civility reigned, Obama said their health-care proposals are about 95 percent similar.
Immigration produced subtle differences between the two. Responding to a question about whether illegal immigrants had impacted jobs and wages for African Americans, Obama rejected the premise. "To suggest somehow that the problem that we're seeing in inner-city unemployment, for example, is attributable to immigrants, I think, is a case of scapegoating that I do not believe in, I do not subscribe to," he said.
Clinton, citing a conversation she shared with an African American man in Atlanta on Thursday night who said that construction jobs now increasingly seem to be held by illegal immigrants, countered by saying, "I believe that in many parts of our country, because of employers who exploit undocumented workers and drive down wages, there are job losses. And I think we should be honest about that."
McCain was invoked throughout the debate, both in the context of Iraq and on economic issues. Obama jabbed at him for having first opposed the Bush tax cuts and now supporting their extension. "Somewhere along the line, the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels," he said.
Clinton and Obama consistently sought to focus on their differences with the other party. Pointing to Wednesday's Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Clinton described the candidates as "more of the same."
"Neither of us, just by looking at us, you can tell, we are not more of the same," she said. "We will change our country."
Kornblut reported from Washington. Staff writer Alec MacGillis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.