By Dan Balz, Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
CLEVELAND, Feb. 26 -- In their final debate before critical primaries in Ohio and Texas, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton clashed sharply on familiar ground, arguing Tuesday night over who has the better health-care plan, who has been right about Iraq and who would move most aggressively to rethink trade policy as president.
In contrast to their debate five days ago in Texas, Clinton and Obama butted heads from the opening moments, starting with a clash over whether the senator from Illinois had mischaracterized her plan for universal health care in his campaign mailings, and continuing throughout the 90-minute session.
"We should have a good debate that uses accurate information, not false, misleading and discredited information, especially on something as important as whether or not we will achieve quality, affordable health care for everyone," said Clinton (N.Y.).
Obama pushed back with equal aggressiveness. "Senator Clinton has, in her campaign at least, has constantly sent out negative attacks on us, e-mail, robo-calls [prerecorded telephone messages], fliers, television ads, radio calls, and we haven't whined about it, because I understand that's the nature of this campaign," he said.
The tone of the debate was generally civil but rarely relaxed. Throughout, there was no mistaking the stakes involved for the candidates, especially Clinton, who has lost every contest since the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses of Feb. 5. Polls show Clinton and Obama in a very competitive race in Texas, while Clinton holds a narrow lead in Ohio. Obama has closed the gap with Clinton in both states.
Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, has said that she must win both Ohio and Texas in order to keep her campaign going, and throughout the debate Clinton pressed her rival and displayed the greater sense of urgency about getting her points across. Unless she wins both states by wide margins, Obama will still hold a lead in pledged delegates to the national convention.
The debate -- the 20th involving the Democratic presidential candidates in the past 10 months -- did little to change the overall shape of the race, which may play to Obama's advantage but will also make the final six days of campaign crucial to both candidates. Earlier in the day, Obama picked up the endorsement of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who dropped out of the race for the nomination in January.
Clinton's frustration with her political situation flashed through early on, when she noted that she seemed to always get the first questions in these debates and made a reference to a "Saturday Night Live" skit aired last weekend that mocked reporters for fawning over Obama. "Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs a pillow," she said.
Obama did not respond to that swipe, but he missed few other opportunities to parry Clinton's charges. Toward the end of the debate he used humor to counter Clinton, who had interjected herself into a question about whether Obama had been strong enough in stating his objections to Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam.
Asked to respond to an endorsement of his candidacy by Farrakhan, Obama described the Chicago figure's anti-Semitic comments as "reprehensible." Adding that "I obviously cannot censor him," Obama said he had not sought the support and would do nothing to make use of it.
"I have been very clear in my denunciation" of Farrakhan's past anti-Semitic remarks, Obama said.
Clinton jumped in to note that, in her 2000 Senate campaign, she had gone to greater lengths to distance herself from people who had made anti-Semitic remarks. "There's a difference between denouncing and rejecting," Clinton said, implying that Obama had not gone far enough. "I just think we've got to be even stronger."
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.