Obama-Clinton Debate Starts Warm, Heats Up

Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama's (Ill.) talked about moments of crisis that have tested them at the Democratic debate Thursday night at the University of Texas in Austin.Video by CNN
By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 22, 2008

AUSTIN, Feb. 21 -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama disagreed sharply on how to achieve universal health care, debated about which of them is most ready to serve as commander in chief and argued over who can best change the country as they appealed for support Thursday ahead of showdown primaries in Texas and Ohio.

The Democratic debate began politely but gathered force in the closing portions with pointed exchanges on substantive issues and about the traits required of a president. The forum closed with a flourish, after the candidates were asked to describe how they had dealt with crises in their lives.

Obama answered first and talked about the trajectory of a life that began as the child of a single mother and now finds him as the front-runner for the party's nomination. But it was Clinton who turned the question most to her advantage, alluding to her husband's affair with a White House intern and his subsequent impeachment but then shifting to say that what she went through paled in comparison to the challenges ordinary Americans face every day.

Reaching over to shake her rival's hand, Clinton said she was "honored" to be on the stage with him, in what sounded almost like an acknowledgment of his growing strength as a candidate. But she quickly refocused on the voters who may still be up for grabs in Texas and Ohio on March 4.

"Whatever happens, we're going to be fine," she said. "You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that's what this election should be about."

The debate was the first of two for Clinton and Obama before the March 4 primaries, which will be critically important to her candidacy after Obama's double-digit string of victories in contests since Super Tuesday. They will debate again in Cleveland on Tuesday. Both primaries are seen as must-wins for Clinton, and it was her goal Thursday night to focus voters on her credentials and her commitment to helping average families.

There were few fireworks, but plenty of exchanges that offered the candidates an opportunity to press the arguments they are making daily on the campaign trail.

Clinton jabbed at Obama over his appropriation of words and phrases from the 2006 campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick, something her campaign has called plagiarism.

"I think that if your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words," she said. "That's, I think, a very simple proposition. And, you know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox."

But the line fell flat in the hall, and Obama batted away as "silly" the idea that taking the advice of one of his national campaign co-chairmen was plagiarism.

The senator from Illinois had earlier challenged Clinton's charge that his campaign is more talk than action. "Senator Clinton of late has said, 'Let's get real,' " he said. "The implication is that the people who've been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional."

As the audience laughed, he continued, referencing "the 20 million people who've been paying attention to 19 debates and the editorial boards all across the country at newspapers who have given me endorsements, including every major newspaper here in the state of Texas."

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