The strengths and vulnerabilities of two leading Democratic presidential candidates were spotlighted in a debate Sunday as Hillary Rodham Clinton defended her electability and Barack Obama said he is ready to be president.
George Stephanopoulos, host of the 90-minute debate on ABC's This Week, noted remarks by Karl Rove, the departing White House political strategist, that no one going into a campaign with negatives as high as Clinton's had ever won the presidency.
"I find it interesting he's so obsessed with me," Clinton said, to laughter. She suggested high negatives — hers are in the high 40s in most polls — are inevitable for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee.
"The idea that you're going to escape the Republican attack machine and not have high negatives by the time they're through with you, I think, is just missing what's been going on in American politics for the last 20 years," the New York senator said.
Obama said the Democrat who wins the nomination will win the election but suggested Clinton is part of larger problems and attitudes that pre-date the Bush administration — including conventional thinking, backbiting, special interest influence and divisive politics.
"We're going to need somebody who can break out of the political patterns that we've been in over the last 20 years," said Obama, noting he is that person.
Former North Carolina senator John Edwards said that if Democrats "become the party of status quo in 2008, that's a loser." He said entrenched lobbyists "stand between us and the change America needs," and he has spent his whole life wresting power away from entrenched interests.
Clinton could signal she is not a "Washington insider" if she would stop taking money from lobbyists, Edwards said. Clinton has not agreed to do that.
Obama was next in the hot seat. Stephanopoulos quoted Sen. Joseph Biden as saying that "right now I don't believe (Obama) is" ready to be president and asked others if they agreed.
Clinton said that "you should not telegraph to our adversaries that you're willing to meet with them without preconditions during the first year in office," referring to a stand Obama took in an earlier debate. Sen. Chris Dodd also said it was "dangerous" for Obama to have said he would go into Pakistan and take out terrorists if Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf would not.
In response, Obama said that "to prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the state fair." He rebutted Clinton and Dodd and said experience didn't help them prevent the Iraq war.
Obama said he wished that "all the people on this stage had asked these questions before they authorized us getting in," he said during a discussion of how, when and whether to leave Iraq. "Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war."
The debate also included New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel.
The latest ABC News poll shows the race in Iowa could not be tighter: Obama 27%, Clinton 26%, Edwards 26%.