Cleveland, Ohio: The gloves came off between Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Tuesday as they traded hard-hitting jabs at possibly the final debate of their marathon White House tussle.
Opening the crunch debate a week before do-or-die nominating clashes in Texas and Ohio, the former first lady accused her rival of copying the scare tactics of health insurers and Republicans in attacking her healthcare plan.
Obama, riding over repeated interruptions from his bitter adversary, shot back that Clinton had betrayed a critical lack of judgment on the Iraq war and insisted he was best placed to take on Republican heir apparent John McCain.
The stakes were high for Clinton heading into the 20th and possibly last Democratic debate of this lengthy primary season, with a clutch of polls suggesting that her support from Democrats nationwide is collapsing.
“I still intend to do everything I can to win, but it has been an honor, because it has been a campaign that is history-making,” Clinton said at the end, pointing to the prospect of the first female or black president.
Obama said Clinton would be “worthy as a nominee” and would be a “much better president than John McCain,” but that he himself would be better at uniting the nation.
The emollient tone at the debate’s close was in sharp contrast to much of the 90-minute encounter in Cleveland, with the New York senator berating the “false, misleading and discredited information” in Obama’s campaign literature.
His leaflet on her plan for universal healthcare read “almost as if the health insurance companies and the Republicans wrote it,” she said as the Illinois senator, seated close by, shook his head.
Clinton denied her campaign was the source of a photograph published on the Drudge Report website Monday showing Obama in Somali garb, a reminder of his African heritage in a contest where race and religion have never been far away.
Obama hit back by stating Clinton’s campaign “has constantly sent out negative attacks on us.”
“We haven’t whined about it,” he said.
Clinton’s tone in Cleveland was being closely watched. In a debate last week in Texas, she had been expected to go on the offensive, but only unleashed a few poorly received attacks before ending on a valedictory note.
Now, Clinton came aggressively out of her corner with her White House dream on the line heading into the 4 March battles in Ohio and Texas, following 11 straight victories for Obama.
To scattered boos, she complained that she always received the first question of debates and pointed to a sketch on the satirical television program “Saturday Night Live” in which news anchors fawned over Obama.
The politician bidding to be the first African-American president took aim at Clinton’s campaign theme that because of her long experience in Washington, only she was ready to be commander-in-chief on “day one.”
“On the most important foreign policy decision that we faced in a generation, whether or not to go into Iraq, I was very clear as to why we should not,” he said, pointing to Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize war.
“And the fact is that Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on day one, but in fact she was ready to give in to (President) George Bush on day one on this critical issue.”
Clinton, however, said Obama had voted the same way as her in the Senate to continue funding for the war.
She also suggested that Obama should “reject” rather than “denounce” the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish tirades of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has endorsed the Illinois senator’s presidential run.
Obama, insisting that Farrakhan’s backing was unwelcome and stressing his strong ties to the Jewish community, said Clinton was playing word-games.
“But if the word ‘reject´ Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word ‘denounce,´ then I’m happy to concede the point. And I would reject and denounce,” he said to laughter.
Obama rode a head of steam into the Cleveland debate, as national polls suggested Clinton’s support was dwindling fast and as newspapers reported infighting among her campaign staff.
A CBS News/New York Times survey gave Obama a 54% to 38% lead among Democrats nationwide. A USA Today poll had him up 51% to 39% nationally among Democratic voters.
There was further alarming news for Clinton a day after a poll showed Obama leading in Texas for the first time.
A Rasmussen Reports survey Tuesday showed Obama had cut her lead among Ohio Democrats to just five points, as she led 48% to 43%.