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In a Crucial State, a Contentious Debate
Obama laughed. "I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting," he said, adding that he would both reject and denounce Farrakhan if it would satisfy Clinton, a remark that drew laughter and applause.
The debate was held on the campus of Cleveland State University. NBC anchor Brian Williams served as moderator, and Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press" joined in the questioning. The debate was aired on NBC affiliates across Ohio and nationally on MSNBC.
Obama drew one of his sharpest contrasts yet with Clinton on the subject of the Iraq war. The candidates have both said they would seek to end the U.S. combat role, but at the outset of the conflict they stood on opposite sides, with Clinton voting to authorize the war in 2002 and Obama speaking against it as an Illinois state legislator.
Clinton characterized Obama's initial opposition as a rhetorical stance, made safely from the sidelines. "He didn't have responsibility. He didn't have to vote," Clinton said. Since Obama joined the Senate in January 2005, she noted, their voting records on Iraq have been essentially identical. "When it wasn't just a speech, but it was actually action, where is the difference?" Clinton said.
Obama responded: "My objections to the war in Iraq were not simply a speech. I was in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign. It was a high-stakes campaign. I was one of the most vocal opponents of the war, and I was very specific as to why."
He continued: "The fact was, this was a big strategic blunder. It was not a matter of 'Well, here is the initial decision, but since then we've voted the same way.' Once we had driven the bus into the ditch, there were only so many ways we could get out. The question is: Who's making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch?"
"And the fact is that Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on Day One, but, in fact, she was ready to give in to George Bush on Day One on this critical issue -- in fact, she facilitated and enabled this individual to make a decision that has been strategically damaging to the United States of America."
Clinton used the opening moments of the debate to delve into the details of her health-care proposal, repeating her assertion that Obama's plan would leave 15 million people without coverage.
Obama did not shy away from pushing back against Clinton -- saying that she had been misrepresenting his health-care plan throughout the race in mailings and ads that he said were "simply not accurate." Obama said that he and Clinton both shared the goal of achieving universal health coverage, an assertion that Clinton disagreed with.
The two also had a spirited discussion about trade, a huge issue here in this working-class industrial state. Both said they would threaten to opt out of the North American Free Trade Agreement unless Mexico and Canada agreed to renegotiate its terms.
NAFTA was a landmark pact signed by Clinton's husband, and Obama has criticized Clinton for having spoken in support of it before her presidential campaign. He also has attacked her in a campaign flier that Clinton has strongly protested as unfair.
Obama continued to duck a question on whether he would commit to using public funds if he wins the Democratic nomination, despite pledging to do so earlier in the campaign. Obama said he is not yet the nominee and would, if chosen, "sit down with John McCain and make sure we have a system that is fair for both sides." But he did not describe what that system would entail.
Clinton, on a question of financing, defended her decision not to release her joint tax returns, though she said she would consider doing so. Russert asked how the public could know who is bankrolling her campaign if she does not open up her private finances yet continues to loan her campaign millions of dollars.
"The American people who support me are bankrolling my campaign, that's obvious," Clinton said. Asked whether she would release her returns by next Tuesday, she demurred. "Well, I can't get it together by then," Clinton said.
She also said she would seek to make public records from her time as first lady that have not yet been released, describing the release of White House records as a "cumbersome process."
Russert asked the two Democrats if they had any moments in their public lives that they wish they could undo. "Obviously, I've said many times that although my vote on the 2002 authorization on Iraq was a sincere vote, I would not have voted that way again. I would certainly as president never have taken us to war in Iraq and I regret deeply that President Bush waged a preemptive war," Clinton said.
Asked explicitly whether she wished she could take that vote back, Clinton -- who has steadfastly refused to apologize for voting for the war -- said yes. "Absolutely, I've said that many times," Clinton said.
Obama said he wished he had spoken out to stop the resolution on Terri Schiavo, allowing Congress to intervene in the case of a Florida woman in a vegetative state, when he first arrived in the Senate.