Wednesday night's final debate between the Democratic presidential contenders before Tuesday's pivotal Pennsylvania primary at first appeared on track to be a civil, measured affair. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each grudgingly admitted that the other could win the election in November over presumptive Republican nominee Senator John McCain, and they agreed that no matter who won, they would support the party.
But that was about all they agreed on. In the two-hour debate from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia — which kicked off with nearly a full hour of tabloid-style rehashing of topics that have been endlessly dissected over the past few weeks — the Democratic rivals got personal at times, lashing each other over questionable associations in their past. Clinton echoed her frequent stump line that her past alleged indiscretions have been so thoroughly picked over by her enemies that they would provide little ammunition against her in the general election, and Obama countered that he has proven he can take a punch, or whatever else the Republicans throw at him. And, unlike their previous debate seven weeks ago, where Clinton said she felt like Obama was getting a pass on hard questions while she got hammered, it was Obama who was on the defensive much of the night.
The debate began with a question about Obama's recent controversial comments at a San Francisco fundraiser, in which he spoke of "small-town" people in Pennsylvania who are "bitter" and "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Measuring his response carefully, Obama reiterated that he "mangled up" his words during that speech.
"The point I was making was that when people feel like Washington's not listening to them, when they're promised year after year, decade after decade, that their economic situation is going to change and it doesn't, then, politically, they end up focusing on those things that are constant, like religion," he explained. "During the course of the last few days, [Clinton] has said I am an elitist, out of touch, condescending. Let me be absolutely clear, it would be pretty hard for me to be condescending towards people of faith, because I am a person of faith, and have done more than most other campaigns in reaching out specifically to people of faith."
Clinton, who has attempted to reach out to the Pennsylvania electorate over the past few weeks by focusing on her religious background and her early instruction in gun handling by her father, countered that it was a "fundamental misunderstanding" to say that people cling to religion and guns out of frustration with Washington, pointing to her grandfather, a Methodist mill worker from Scranton, as an example.
"Now, that doesn't mean that people are not frustrated with the government. We have every reason to be frustrated, particularly with this administration," she said. "But I can see why people would be taken aback and offended by the remarks."
Asked a second time if Obama could defeat McCain, despite the harsh Republican attacks on the freshman Illinois senator in light of the "bitter" remark, Clinton said, "Yes, yes, yes ... but I think I can do a better job."
Quoting a new poll that showed that almost six in 10 Americans don't find her trustworthy, the debate's moderators also rehashed Clinton's already-recanted claims that she came under sniper during a visit to Bosnia in 1996. "I'm embarrassed by it. I have apologized for it. I've said it was a mistake," Clinton said, responding to a viewer question. "And it is, I hope, something that you can look over, because clearly I am proud that I went to Bosnia."
Another viewer dug up yet another old controversy, the one over Obama's refusal to wear an American-flag pin — which he's apparently reversed lately, as he's been seen sporting one on occasion. Defending his patriotism, Obama explained, "I am absolutely confident that during the general election, that when I'm in a debate with John McCain, people are not going to be questioning my patriotism. They are going to be questioning, 'How can you make people's lives a little bit better?' "
The candidates tried their best to explain their positions on the topics that they think voters are most interested in — jobs, the economy, the war in Iraq and the housing crisis — but old controversies kept cropping up. Obama again answered questions about his association with the controversial former pastor of his Chicago church, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright — whose incendiary comments Obama once more disavowed — as well as queries about his ties to 1960s Weather Underground member William Ayers. (After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Ayers publicly said he did not regret setting bombs in the 1960s as a member of the radical group.) Obama explained that he does not have a relationship with Ayers, and noted that Bill Clinton pardoned members of the group during his presidency.
Clinton responded by saying that Ayers' comments were hurtful to the people of New York and pointed to the controversy as yet another weakness McCain might exploit should Obama become the Democratic candidate.
"The notion that somehow the American people are going to be distracted once again by comments not made by me but somebody who is associated with me that I have disowned, I think doesn't give the American people enough credit," Obama said.
The candidates were asked to respond to a recent suggestion by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo that whoever wins the contentious primary battle should select the other as their vice-presidential nominee. While Clinton dodged a bit, stressed the importance of the party closing ranks around the winner and pledged to support the nominee, Obama said it was still too early to answer the question.
On other policy questions, such as how they would deal with an attack by Iran on Israel, both promised a swift, decisive military response. Both also pledged not to raise taxes on the middle class if elected president. Clinton also reiterated her desire to begin an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq if elected, even if the military commanders on the ground advised her otherwise.
While most scored the debate as a tie, or gave a slight advantage to Clinton for her calmness and preparedness, the Washington Post had nothing but harsh words for ABC, the network that aired the debate, and moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. The paper slammed the "commercial-crammed show" and criticized the moderators for focusing on "specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed."
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