April 17, 2008 — -- Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama opened Wednesday's presidential debate on a point of accord: neither would answer head-on whether they'd be willing to name the other as vice president.
Obama, D-Ill., said it was "premature" to discuss the veepstakes, but promised the party would "come together by August," when the party will hold its convention in Denver.
Clinton, D-N.Y., agreed. "Regardless of the differences there may be between us, and there are differences, they pale in comparison to the differences between us and Sen. [John] McCain," she said.
In the first debate since Feb. 26, on stage at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center and moderated by ABC's Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, Clinton said, "I am going to do everything I possibly can to make sure one of us takes the oath of office next January."
Through surrogates and spin, the two Democratic challengers have highlighted each other's misstatements and missteps this week, each trying to seize the momentum in these final contests, and place doubts in the minds of voters and superdelegates about their opponent's potential strength against McCain, the Arizona senator who is the Republicans' presumptive nominee.
Pressed by Stephanopoulos on whether Obama would be able to defeat McCain in the general election, Clinton — after a long statement that avoided the question — said, "Yes, yes, yes."
Obama also expressed confidence in his Democratic rival, saying he "absolutely" thought Clinton could win in November.
But the collegiality between the two candidates had its limits.
Obama defended recent remarks at a San Francisco frundraiser where he characterized small town voters as "bitter" saying they "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them ...as a way to explain their frustrations."
Obama said "that, when people feel like Washington's not listening to them ... then, politically, they end up focusing on those things that are constant, like religion.
"They end up being much more concerned about votes around things like guns, where traditions have been passed on from generation to generation," Obama said.
Clinton said she understood why people were "taken aback" and "offended" by Obama's remarks.
Citing her family history, specifically her grandfather, a factory worker from Scranton, Pa., Clinton said she didn't think her family or the people of Pennsylvania reached for religion out of frustration with Washington.
"I think that is a fundamental sort of misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are bad," Clitnon said.
On stage, Obama attacked Clinton for characterizing him as an elitist for the remarks.
"The problem with our politics is you take one person's statement, if it's not phrased properly and you beat it to death," Obama said. "And that's what Sen Clinton has been doing for the past 4 days."
It's unclear whether Obama's support was impacted by the political firestorm. Recent polling shows Obama losing little ground, but the polling was conducted over the weekend as media coverage of his remarks unfolded.
Obama's relationship with his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright also came into question, specifically Obama's understanding of Wright's full range of controversial remarks, more than a year ago, when he disinvited his longtime pastor from a campaign event.
Wednesday, Obama once again denounced Wright's sermons which included, among other things, the charge that the United States brought on the 9/11 attacks with its own "terrorism" but defended the church and his longtime pastor's 30-year career citing his work "in ministries, on HIV/AIDS, prison ministries, providing people with the kind of comfort that we expect in churches."
Clinton reiterated her criticism of the Wright relationship, saying that, based on his sermons, Wright would not have been her pastor and that she would have left his church if she had heard them.
"For Pastor Wright to have given his first sermon after 9/11 and to have blamed the United States for the attack...I would have not been able to stay in the church," Clinton said. "You can pick your pastor. You can't pick your family, but you can pick your pastor."
In an ABCNews/Washington Post poll released this week, 59 percent of adults and 72 percent of leaning Democrats approved of the way Obama handled the Wright controversy, though concerns remain among Democrats that the subject would be revisited by the Republican nominee in the general election.
Obama also faced questions about a controversial supporter of his, Bill Ayers who was once a member of the violent radical left group Weather Underground seeking to overthrow the U.S. government. The two men served together on the board of a Chicago nonprofit.
"The notion that somehow, as a consequence of me knowing someone who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, that somehow reflects on my values is crazy," Obama said.
Clinton framed the association in the context of the general election, "What they did was set bombs, and in some cases people died. I know Sen Obama is a good man and I respect him greatly but this is certainly something the Republicans will be raising."
Obama countered, "I don't think Sen. Clinton would make her own vetting standard. Cause President Clinton pardoned 2 members of the weather underground. Which is a bigger deal than serving on a board with someone."
Clinton had her turn in the hot seat during the debate as well, responding to her widely criticized embellishment of the details of a trip she took to Bosnia as first lady in 1996, where she described landing "in an evasive maneuver" "under sniper fire." Video footage later revealed Clinton participating in a greeting ceremony with school children on the tarmac.
Responding to a video question submitted to ABCNews by Pittsburgh resident Tom Rooney, who said Clinton lost his vote over the Bosnia flap, Clinton said "I'm embarrassed by it, I've apologized for it, and I've said it was a mistake."
Though his campaign has criticized Clinton for her erroneous retelling of the Tuzla visit, on stage, Obama gave his rival a pass on the matter.
"I think Sen. Clinton deserves the right to make some errors once in a while," Obama said. "I think what's important is to make sure that we don't get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight that this is a defining moment in our history."
The Bosnia flap comes at a potentially damaging time in the campaign when the New York senator is battling trust issues with the American electorate. Wednesday's ABC poll revealed that 58 percent of all Americans find Clinton not honest and not trustworthy.
On the issues of Iraq, Iran and the economy, the candidates rehashed the positions they've detailed over the last 20 debates in the Democratic presidential race, since the first primary forum took place more than a year ago.
As Gibson pointed out, the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech school shootings cast a shadow over the debate Wednesday, particularly as both candidates find themselves trying to balance support of gun control measures with an individual's right to bear arms.
Clinton said she respected the Second Amendment, and that it was all about finding "the right equation."
"I respect the rights of lawful gun owners to own guns, to use their guns," Clinton said, emphasizing that she "will work hard to bridge the divide which I think has been polarizing and, frankly, doesn't reflect the common sense of the American people."
Obama said it was important to figure out "what was working" among gun control measures currently in place, and that he has "never favored an all-out ban on handguns.
"I believe that the Constitution confers an individual right to bear arms. But just because you have an individual right does not mean that the state or local government can't constrain the exercise of that right," he said.
Pennsylvania's 158 pledged Democratic delegates are up for grabs in Tuesday's primary and, by national rules, are divided proportionally between the two candidates, based on their percentage win of the state.
Only registered Democrats can vote in the Keystone State's Democratic primary, and the state has seen record registration among Democratic voters and changes in party affiliation since January, because of both a tight delegate race between the Democratic contenders and an all-but-official Republican nominee.
Obama currently leads the overall count with 1,639 delegates to Clinton's 1,499. The number of delegates needed to secure the party nomination is 2,025.
If the state contests and allocation of pledged delegates do not bring the race for the party nomination to a single Democratic candidate, the Democratic race could end in the hands of the 700-some superdelegates, whose individual, independent votes count towards the 2,025 total.
Clinton said Wednesday that, if necessary, she would try to convince the superdelegates to support her with the same language she has used with American voters. "We need a fighter in the White House," Clinton said. "We need someone who's going to take on the special interests."
Obama countered that he would reiterate his campaign rhetoric for change in Washington as a means of garnering superdelegate support.
"Change does not happen from the top down," Obama said. "It happens from the bottom up ... we're going to enlist the American people in the project of changing this country."
Last month on "Good Morning America," Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean said he's in favor of letting the state nominating contests play out as necessary, but that he'd like the superdelegates to announce who they are supporting by July 1.
"We don't want this to degenerate to a big fight at the convention," Dean said, underscoring the need for a candidate to emerge for the party, and for the losing Democrat to unite behind them.
Clinton has already said yes to another proposed debate in North Carolina but Obama has yet to agree. This may have been the last debate between these two candidates depending on the outcome of the Pennsylvania primary.