Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama drew sharp distinctions Thursday on Iraq, health care and immigration, facing off in their only one-on-one debate before a pivotal set of contests next week.
The last two Democrats standing agreed on two things: Either of them represents a stark change from President Bush, and one will be the nation's first woman or African-American president. But Clinton drew laughs with her pitch to succeed Bush.
"It did take a Clinton to clean (up) after the first Bush, and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush," she said.
The rivals are trying to define each other for voters in 22 states from California to New York who take part in primaries and caucuses on Tuesday. Their race is close: Each has two major-state victories apiece, while Clinton also won "beauty contests" in Michigan and Florida that awarded no delegates.
The Iraq war was a flash point, as it has been since the campaign began in earnest last year. Obama reinforced a point he has made often: that he was against the war "from the beginning" and Clinton supported the invasion of Iraq with her 2002 vote to give Bush the authority to use military force.
Obama said he would make a stronger Democratic nominee in November because he offers "a clear contrast as somebody who never supported this war. The question is: Can we make an argument that this was a conceptually flawed mission from the start?"
Clinton said she did not believe a Republican nominee could use the Iraq war against either Democratic candidate. "I think the Democrats have a much better grasp of the reality of the situation," she said.
She stressed that her Iraq vote in 2002 was a "sincere vote based on my assessment at the time" and "was not authority for a pre-emptive war."
Both Democrats took shots at GOP front-runner John McCain, pointing out his support of Bush's plan to temporarily increase U.S. troops in Iraq. Clinton knocked the Arizona senator for calling her plan to withdraw troops "surrender." Obama criticized him for wanting to make permanent tax cuts Bush supported in 2001 and 2003, after initially voting against them.
In one of their most pointed exchanges, Obama charged that Clinton was being "political" as she provided "a number of different answers" over time on whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses.
Clinton was criticized by rivals in both parties in November for being non-committal on such a plan by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. She announced her opposition only after Spitzer withdrew the proposal.
On Thursday, Clinton said she believed allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses is "inappropriate" and puts people at risk. The New York senator said that at one time Obama had refused to take a position on the issue.
As she has throughout the campaign, Clinton challenged Obama as being too inexperienced to be president "from Day One," using a phrase that has been one of her signatures. Obama shot back later, saying "it's important to be right on Day One."
Thursday's event was a departure from the Democratic debate in South Carolina last week, which was angrier and, at times, personal. Some of that strain was sparked by former president Bill Clinton's aggressive support of his wife on the campaign trail, including some sharp blows at Obama.
Asked whether she could control her husband if she were elected, Clinton said she and Obama both "have very passionate spouses … who promote and defend us at every turn." Clinton said her husband would not run her campaign or her presidency. "It's my name that is on the ballot, and it will be my responsibility as president."
The debate, held at the Kodak Theatre where the Academy Awards are handed out, attracted a host of celebrities. Among the Clinton supporters: directors Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner and actress Diane Keaton. Actress Alfre Woodard and entertainment mogul David Geffen were among the Obama backers.
The debate was sponsored by CNN, Politico and the Los Angeles Times.