By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 17, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, April 16 -- Sen. Barack Obama repeatedly found himself on the defensive here Wednesday night as he sought to bat away criticism of his remarks about small-town values, questions about his patriotism and the incendiary sermons of his former pastor in a potentially pivotal debate six days before Pennsylvania's presidential primary.
In their first head-to-head encounter in nearly two months, Obama (Ill.) and his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), sparred over gaffes, missteps and past statements that could leave them vulnerable in the general election against Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee.
But it was Obama, now his party's front-runner, who was pressed most persistently by moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News to answer questions that have dominated the Democratic race in the weeks since the last major contests, held March 4 in Texas and Ohio.
The encounter, particularly in the early stages, seemed more like a grilling of Obama on a Sunday-morning talk show than a debate between the two candidates. Obama fielded most of the questions calmly, although at times he appeared to choose his words with extreme care as he faced perhaps the toughest series of questions he has encountered since taking the lead in delegates in the nomination battle.
It took only a few minutes for the debate to focus on Obama's comments at a recent fundraiser in San Francisco, in which he characterized people who live in economically hard-hit small towns as "bitter" about their plight and said that, as a result, they "cling" to religion, guns and an antipathy to people not like themselves.
Obama said he understood why some people were offended by what he called a "mangled up" statement and then sought to reframe his comments in less offensive terms. "The point I was making was that when people feel like Washington's not listening to them, when they're promised year after year, decade after decade, that their economic situation is going to change and it doesn't, then, politically, they end up focusing on those things that are constant, like religion."
Obama also said many of those Americans end up basing their votes on issues such as gun control, and he said those issues often become wedges to divide the electorate. "When those issues are exploited, we never get to solve the issues that people really have to get some relief on, whether it's health care or education or jobs," he said.
Clinton did not let him off the hook, however. Noting that her grandfather had worked in the lace mills of Scranton, beginning at age 11, and that he had been a member of the local Methodist church, she said it is a "fundamental misunderstanding" to believe that people cling to religion or hunting out of frustration with Washington.
"Now, that doesn't mean that people are not frustrated with the government. We have every reason to be frustrated, particularly with this administration," she said. "But I can see why people would be taken aback and offended by the remarks."
She was then asked, in light of Republican attacks on Obama over the comments, whether she thinks the senator from Illinois could defeat McCain. At first she praised McCain as a formidable opponent and "a man with a great American story to tell." Pressed to answer directly whether Obama can win, she responded: "Yes. Yes. Yes." But she added: "I think I can do a better job."
Clinton came under fire as well, for incorrectly stating on several occasions that she had dodged sniper fire on a visit to Bosnia in 1996. The context for the question was a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that nearly six in 10 Americans do not find her honest or trustworthy.
Clinton was asked a question in a video clip of a Pittsburgh voter, Tom Rooney, who said she had lost his vote over it and wondered how she could win him back. "Well, Tom, I can tell you that I may be a lot of things. But I'm not dumb," Clinton began. She then added: "I'm embarrassed by it. I have apologized for it. I've said it was a mistake. And it is, I hope, something that you can look over, because clearly I am proud that I went to Bosnia."
Still, most of the focus during the first half of the 90-plus-minute debate at the National Constitution Center was on Obama. He, too, got a video question, from Nash McCabe of Latrobe, Pa. Why, she asked, did Obama decline to wear an American flag pin?
Obama said he reveres the flag and added: "I am absolutely confident that during the general election, that when I'm in a debate with John McCain, people are not going to be questioning my patriotism; they are going to be questioning, how can you make people's lives a little bit better?"
He was then asked about his association with William Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground, a radical group from the 1960s and '70s. Ayers was quoted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as saying he did not regret setting bombs and that "we didn't do enough."
Obama said he does not have a close relationship with Ayers. "The notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense," he said. He also noted that President Bill Clinton had pardoned members of the group.
Once again, Clinton took the opportunity to criticize her rival, calling Ayers's comments "deeply hurtful to people in New York," and she said Obama had served on a board with Ayers. "And I have no doubt -- I know Senator Obama's a good man and I respect him greatly, but I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising," she said. "And it goes to this larger set of concerns about how we are going to run against John McCain."
Wednesday's debate was held in the same facility where Obama delivered his speech about race days after the videos of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, surfaced.
Obama once again disavowed the remarks without disowning his former pastor, but he said when asked how he would deal with the videos being played over and over in the fall: "If it's not this, then it would be something else. I promise you, if Senator Clinton got the nomination, there will be a whole bunch of video clips about other things." He added that he has confidence in the American people to focus on what matters to them most, including health care and the economy. "The notion that somehow that the American people are going to be distracted once again by comments not made by me, but somebody who is associated with me that I have disowned, I think doesn't give the American people enough credit."
Clinton had said at the time of the controversy that she would have left the church over Wright's comments. Asked whether the 8,000 members of Wright's congregation were wrong to stay, she said hers had been a personal answer to a direct question. "For Pastor Wright to have given his first sermon after 9/11 and to have blamed the United States for the attack, which happened in my city of New York, would have been just intolerable for me."
The debate opened with a question about a recent proposal by former New York governor Mario Cuomo. He suggested that the nomination battle continue to the end of the primaries, but that the winner select the loser as the vice presidential nominee.
Neither Clinton nor Obama wanted to go first in answering whether they agreed. Obama called the question premature as long as the nomination battle continues. Clinton said that "I think it is absolutely imperative that our entire party close ranks" when the primaries end. "That we become unified. I will do everything to make sure that the people who supported me support our nominee. I will go anywhere in the country to make the case. And I know that Barack feels the same way."
The debate also touched on Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, taxes, the economy, guns and affirmative action.
Neither Clinton nor Obama gave clear answers about gun control and affirmative action questions; both seemed eager to repeat their past positions on those two sensitive subjects and move on. On the economy, Clinton promised not to raise taxes on people making less than $250,000 a year, flatly ruling out a middle-class tax hike. Obama did the same, though he defined middle class more broadly, saying that the line would be drawn at people making between $200,000 and $250,000 a year.
Obama also confirmed that he would consider raising the capital gains tax, which is currently at 15 percent, back to its previous Clinton-era high of 28 percent. Clinton said she would not raise that tax above 20 percent, if at all, but would take the federal cash flow into account.