Clinton, Obama trade barbs at combative debate

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Tuesday traded attacks over the Iraq war, healthcare and foreign policy at a feisty debate heading into crunch White House nominating contests.

Giving no quarter, both presidential runners probed each other’s defenses but neither appeared to have landed a knock-out punch a week before the pivotal clashes in Texas and Ohio.

They ended the 90-minute debate in Cleveland praising each other over presumed Republican nominee John McCain, with Obama stating that Clinton would be “worthy as a nominee” but that he would be better at uniting the nation.

However, for much of the encounter, the two Democrats exchanged potshots over negative campaigning as they highlighted the signature differences between their historic White House bids.

Clinton highlighted recent mailers from the Obama campaign on her healthcare and trade proposals that contained “false, misleading and discredited information.”

The literature on her plan for universal healthcare read “almost as if the health insurance companies and the Republicans wrote it,” she said.

Despite repeated interruptions from Clinton, the Illinois senator hit back by stating her campaign “has constantly sent out negative attacks on us.”

“We haven’t whined about it,” said Obama, whose healthcare plan focuses on driving down costs rather than making insurance mandatory.

Clinton’s tone in Cleveland was being closely watched. In a debate last week in Texas, she had been expected to go on the offensive, but only unleashed a few poorly received attacks before ending on a valedictory note.

Now, seated close to Obama at the 20th and possibly last Democratic debate of this lengthy primary season, Clinton came out fighting with her White House dream on the line heading into the March 4 battles in Ohio and Texas.

To scattered boos, she complained that she always received the first question of debates and pointed to a weekend skit on the satirical program “Saturday Night Live” in which news anchors fawned over Obama.

The first laughs came nearly an hour into the debate, when Obama gave Clinton “points for her delivery” after the MSNBC hosts aired a clip of her mocking his soaring oratory as the chorus of “celestial choirs.”

Obama said that Clinton had betrayed a critical lack of judgment on the Iraq war and insisted he was best placed to take on McCain in November’s presidential election.

Obama took aim at Clinton’s campaign theme that because of her long experience in Washington, only she was ready to be commander-in-chief on “day one.”

“On the most important foreign policy decision that we faced in a generation, whether or not to go into Iraq, I was very clear as to why we should not,” he said, while pointing to Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize war.

“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 (President) George Bush on day one on this critical issue.”

Clinton said Obama should be “commended” for opposing the war all along, but stressed that he had voted the same way as her in the Senate to continue funding for military operations.

Asked by MSNBC moderator Tim Russert if “you’d like to have your vote back?” Clinton replied: “Absolutely. I’ve said that many times.”

In fact the New York senator has long argued that she voted in 2002 for more diplomacy rather than war, and has repeatedly refused to renounce her vote.

A day after arguing that her opponent would need a foreign-policy “instruction manual,” Clinton again assailed Obama for advocating a military strike on Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan without necessarily seeking the Pakistani government’s approval.

Obama said he would only strike on receipt of “actionable intelligence” if Pakistan was “unwilling or unable to strike against them.”

Clinton closed by reiterating that it had “been an honor to campaign” alongside Obama.

“I still intend to do everything I can to win, but it has been an honor, because it has been a campaign that is history-making,” she said, pointing to the prospect of the first female or black US president.

  • Agence France-Presse

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