Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Obama parries Clinton offensive at crunch debate

Democrat Hillary Clinton threw some sharp jabs at White House rival Barack Obama in their final debate before crucial primaries, but Obama parried the blows to score some hits of his own.

The former first lady came out fighting at the debate late Tuesday, which was billed as her last chance to derail Obama's stunning momentum heading into the nominating clashes in Ohio and Texas on March 4. Clinton accused the Illinois senator of copying the scare tactics of health insurers and Republicans in attacking her healthcare plan, and once again portrayed him as a political neophyte unprepared for foreign policy crises.

But Obama, 46, counter-punched with the argument that Clinton had betrayed a critical lack of judgment on the Iraq war, and insisted that he was best placed to take on Republican heir apparent John McCain. "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," Clinton, 60, said at the end, pointing to the prospect of the first female or black president. Obama said Clinton would be "worthy as a nominee" and would be a "much better president than John McCain," but that he himself would be better at healing America's political wounds.

The emollient tone at the debate's close was in sharp contrast to much of the 90-minute encounter in Cleveland, with the New York senator berating the "false, misleading and discredited information" in Obama's campaign literature. His leaflet on her plan for universal healthcare read "almost as if the health insurance companies and the Republicans wrote it," she said as the freshman senator, seated close by, shook his head.

Clinton pressed Obama to go further in condemning the anti-Israel leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan. "I would reject and denounce," he said, drawing laughs. Jabbing back, the man bidding to be the first African-American president 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." Clinton was part of the Washington crowd that "had driven the bus into the ditch" by voting for the war in Iraq, said Obama, who opposed the invasion from the start. "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."

The candidates also sparred over trade and how best to pursue Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, while Clinton denied her campaign was the source of a photograph published on the Drudge Report website Monday showing Obama in Somali garb. They did find agreement in commenting that Russia's first deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev would essentially do the bidding of outgoing leader Vladimir Putin if elected president on Sunday.

The stakes were high for Clinton heading into the 20th and possibly last Democratic debate of this extraordinary primary season, with a clutch of polls suggesting that her support from Democrats nationwide is collapsing. But she failed to land a knock-out punch, drawing boos at one point for a sarcastic criticism of the MSNBC moderators that implied the media was giving Obama a free ride.

New York Times political analyst Adam Nagourney noted that Clinton grabbed every opportunity to try to undermine Obama's readiness for the Oval Office. "Yet by the end of the night, there was little evidence that Mrs Clinton had produced the kind of ground-moving moment she needed that might shift the course of a campaign that polls suggest has been moving inexorably in Mr Obama's direction for weeks," he wrote, echoing other pundits.

In a debate last week in Texas, Clinton had been expected to go on the offensive, but only unleashed a few poorly received attacks before ending on a valedictory note. This time, she was far more aggressive with her White House dream on the line heading into next Tuesday's battles in Ohio and Texas, following 11 straight victories for Obama.

Obama rode a head of steam into the Cleveland debate, as national polls suggested Clinton's support was dwindling fast and as newspapers reported infighting among her campaign staff. A CBS News/New York Times survey gave Obama a 54 percent to 38 percent lead among Democrats nationwide. A USA Today poll had him up 51 percent to 39 percent nationally among Democratic voters.

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