Aggressive cuts and thrusts over Iraq, health care and campaign tactics dominated the 20th and possibly final Democratic debate Tuesday as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama angled for advantage a week before a crucial set of primaries.
The moderators — NBC's Brian Williams and Tim Russert — ran excerpts of the senators attacking each other, including Clinton ridiculing Obama's "hope" message. She said she had "tangled" with drug and insurance companies in trying to reform health care and "I do think we need a fighter back in the White House."
"I am absolutely clear that hope is not enough," Obama said. But he said that "if the American people are activated, that's how change is going to happen." He added that Clinton had alienated not just drug and insurance companies in her failed 1993-94 health care reform effort but fellow Democrats.
MSNBC billed the debate at Cleveland State University as "do or die," and that wasn't far off. Clinton, of New York, has lost 11 contests in a row to Obama, of Illinois. Clinton advisers, including her husband, have said she needs to win Texas and Ohio on March 4 to stay viable.
Clinton was on the defensive from the start, when Williams asked about her angry weekend attack on Obama over mailers she said distorted her health care plan.
"This is a contested campaign," Clinton said, and it's important to let voters know where there are differences and misrepresentations.
Obama answered that Clinton has used all kinds of negative mailings, ads and phone calls against him, and "we haven't whined about it because I understand that's the nature of these campaigns."
Clinton said Obama's mailing wrongly said that she would "force people to have health care whether they could afford it or not" and could have been written by "the insurance companies and the Republicans." Her plan would require people to buy coverage, and she says she would make it affordable.
Some undercurrents surfaced in the faceoff, including Clinton camp complaints about unfair treatment by the media. "I seem to get the first question all the time," Clinton said. Referring to a Saturday Night Live satire of kid gloves treatment of Obama, she added, "Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow."
Some of the sharpest exchanges came over Iraq and foreign policy. Clinton said Obama chairs a subcommittee on Europe but had held no hearings on how to strengthen NATO's hand in Afghanistan. She also said Obama had unwisely "threatened to bomb Pakistan."
Obama said he had never made that threat, but had proposed to strike terrorists within Pakistan if the government there were unwilling or unable to do so — something he said the Bush administration did just several days ago.
Twisting a line Clinton often uses, he said she was "ready to give in to George Bush on Day One" on Iraq and had helped Bush "drive the bus into the ditch." He also said her stand on Iraq was "essentially similar" to likely GOP nominee John McCain's "until (she) started running for president."
Both candidates have emphasized economic growth plans in this state, where manufacturing is in decline and tens of thousands have lost jobs. They said in the debate they would reserve the option to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement if they could not get Mexico and Canada to renegotiate the pact.
The moderators asked Obama about a recent statement of support from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Obama said he considers Israel's security "sacrosanct" and has denounced Farrakhan's anti-Semitic remarks.
Clinton responded that she had "rejected" unwelcome support in her 2000 Senate campaign at some political risk and said his denunciation was not enough. "I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting," Obama said, but "I'm happy to concede the point and I would reject and denounce."
Obama hedged about whether he would take public money for the general election if he is the nominee, as he once said he would. Clinton was vague on when she'd release her tax returns except to say not before the next primaries. "I'm a little busy right now," she said.