Sparks fly in S.C. Democratic debate

January 22, 2008 8:20:38 AM PST
Monday night, the Democratic contest for the White House became a real firefight, a big moment in a race that so far has been remarkably civil. Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards sometimes seem to agree about every major policy point and the debates until now have been marked by a sort of camaraderie. But Clinton and Obama split the first three contests on the primary calendar and they're now neck and neck in South Carolina. With that crucial primary now just four days away, they have upped the ante, upped the adrenaline and aimed it at each other. The gloves were definitely off.

"When Sen. Clinton says ? or [former] President Clinton says ? that I wasn't opposed to the war from the start or says it's a fairy tale that I opposed the war, that is simply not true," said Obama. "When Sen. Clinton or [former] President Clinton asserts that I said that the Republicans had had better economic policies since 1980, that is not the case."

Clinton was just as blunt.

"It is sometimes difficult to understand what Sen. Obama has said, because as soon as he is confronted on it, he says that's not what he meant," Clinton replied. "The facts are that he has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years, and we can give you the exact quote."

"And I want to be just very explicit about this. We are not, neither my campaign nor anyone associated with it, are in any way saying you did not oppose the war in Iraq," Clinton went on to say. "You did. You gave a great speech in 2002 opposing the war in Iraq. That was not what the point of our criticism was. It was after having given that speech, by the next year the speech was off your Web site. By the next year, you were telling reporters that you agreed with President Bush in his conduct of the war. And by the next year, when you were in the Senate, you were voting to fund the war time after time after time."

There was arguing, there was interrupting and there were zingers. Clinton mentioned Obama's connection to a Chicago real estate mogul who's been indicted for crimes. Obama brought up Clinton's work for Wal-Mart.

"While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart," Obama said. "I was fighting these fights."

"We're just getting warmed up," Clinton countered, changing the focus. "I just want to be clear about this. You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader. I did not mention his name."

"Your husband did," Obama said.

"Well, I'm here. He's not," Clinton replied.

"OK. Well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," said Obama.

Obama's opponents questioned why, when he was an Illinois legislator, he voted "present" more than 100 times rather than voting yes or no.

"I do think it's important, whether you're willing to take hard positions," Edwards said. "Members of Congress have to vote up or down or not show up. ? Why over 100 times you didn't vote up or down?"

Obama eventually said that "most of these were technical problems with a piece of legislation that ended up not being controversial."

There were some moments of levity. Obama was asked whether author Toni Morrison was right when she called Bill Clinton the first black president.

"I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community," said Obama. "Bill Clinton embodies that, he deserves credit for that. I would have to investigate more Bill's dancing abilities before I accurately judged whether he was in fact a brother."

"I'm sure that can be arranged," said Clinton.

In fact, they may just bump into each other. Obama and Bill Clinton will be crisscrossing the state Wednesday within miles of each other. Hillary Clinton left South Carolina after the debate, leaving her husband to do the bulk of the campaigning there.