Trailing in national polls and with supporters growing restless, Barack Obama challenged Hillary Rodham Clinton’s electability and candor in a spirited Tuesday night debate. But he failed to rattle the front-runner or do much, it seemed, to shake up the Democratic race.
Under fire from the first question -- an invitation for Obama to take a shot at Clinton -- the New York senator smiled through most of the two-hour session, often seconding the views of others on stage and joining the laughter during an attack on Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The sharpest exchange centered on suggestions that Clinton was too divisive to win the White House. She said Republicans’ focus on her candidacy showed -- “in a perverse way” -- its strength. “They obviously think that I am communicating effectively about what I will do as president,” Clinton said.
Sen. Obama of Illinois responded moments later.
“Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that’s a fight they’re very comfortable having,” he said. “It’s the fight that we’ve been through since the ‘90s . . . and what we don’t need is another eight years of bickering.”
John Edwards, the aggressor throughout most of the evening, was even harsher. Noting Clinton’s acceptance of campaign money from Washington lobbyists, the former North Carolina senator said, “Will she be the person who brings about change in this country? You know, I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in the Tooth Fairy, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I really don’t.”
For the most part, however, the candidates spent the night rehashing old arguments over Iraq, Iran and Social Security. At one point, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson chided others for ganging up on Clinton.
“We need to be positive in this campaign,” he said, as Clinton stood behind a nearby lectern, nodding in agreement. “Yes, we need to point out our differences . . . but I think it’s important we save our ammunition for the Republicans.”
The session at Drexel University in Philadelphia -- the seventh time the Democratic hopefuls have shared a debate stage -- came at a significant time in the presidential race, which appears split into parallel contests: one taking place in Iowa’s caucuses and the other nationally.
Clinton, Obama and Edwards are tightly bunched in Iowa, which will begin the presidential balloting on Jan. 3. Meantime, Clinton has opened a yawning gap in national polls as well as in New Hampshire, the first primary state. That has intensified pressure on Obama to shake up the race and translate his big budget and campaign-trail charisma into greater support. The best way to do that, he acknowledged, was to draw sharper distinctions with Clinton.
“Now is the time,” Obama said in an interview published Sunday in the New York Times -- pledging, not for the first time in the campaign, to get tougher on the Democratic front-runner. But asked about that interview at the start of Tuesday night’s debate, Obama demurred. “Well, first of all, I think some of this stuff gets over-hyped,” he said.
He took issue with Clinton several times during the debate -- suggesting she fuzzed up her position on Social Security, criticizing the slow release of documents from her husband’s administration and accusing her of changing positions on issues such as trade and the Iraq war. Leadership, he said, does not mean shifting positions for political expediency.
But he delivered his charges in subdued fashion, as though he were back in the classroom teaching one of his courses on constitutional law.
The only person on stage who appeared to leave Clinton unnerved was co-moderator Tim Russert of NBC, who pressed her on the Social Security issue. Clinton has said in public forums that she would not raise the cap on Social Security taxes, now set at earnings up to $97,500. But Russert cited an instance in which a reporter overheard her telling an Iowa voter that she would consider raising the cap for high-income earners.
“Why do you have one public position and one private position?” Russert asked.
“Well, Tim, I don’t,” Clinton replied testily, saying the steps she favored were restoring “fiscal responsibility” to Washington, then appointing a bipartisan panel to examine ways to shore up the program. “I don’t want to balance Social Security on the backs of our seniors and middle-class families,” Clinton said. As for Edwards, he faces a win-or-go-home situation in Iowa, where he charmed audiences four years ago by shunning negative campaigning in his first bid for president. This time Edwards has been far more pugnacious, taking the lead among Democrats in assailing his rivals.
In one of the night’s most pointed attacks, he suggested that a calculating Clinton was weighing her stance on issues such as Iran with an eye on moving from “primary mode to general election mode. I think that our responsibility as presidential candidates is to be in tell-the-truth mode all the time.”
But even Edwards holstered the harsher rhetoric he often uses on the campaign trail.
He and Obama reiterated their criticism of Clinton for supporting a Senate resolution declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. Chiming in were Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, who suggested that the vote could embolden Bush to go to war again. Even if it doesn’t, Biden said, “It plays into this whole urban legend that America is on a crusade against Islam. If nothing else happens . . . this was bad policy.”
For her part, Clinton said she was merely voting for a tougher stance against Iran. “Having those economic sanctions hanging over their heads gives our negotiators one of the set of sticks we need to try to make progress in dealing with a very complicated situation.”
Virtually all of the candidates said that as president they would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, however, assailed Democratic “enablers” and said, “We need to adamantly reject any move towards war with Iran.”
Reprising their scuffling over the war in Iraq, Richardson reiterated his call for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops, and Edwards vowed to remove all combat units by the end of his first year in office. “If you believe there should be no actual timetable for withdrawal, then Sen. Clinton’s your candidate,” he jibed.
“I stand for ending the war in Iraq, bringing our troops home,” she responded. “But I also know it’s going to be complicated, and it’s going to take time. And I intend to do it in a responsible matter that is as safe for our troops as possible.”
Clinton was similarly vague on other issues. She said a home-state proposal to give drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants “makes a lot of sense” but stopped short of an endorsement.
Clinton also wavered when asked if she backs a plan put forward by one of her chief supporters, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York.
Rangel has suggested repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax, which has proved a burden to some middle-class Americans, and imposing a 4% surtax on individuals earning more than $150,000 a year or families making more than $200,000. Clinton said she agreed with Rangel’s goal but did not like “all the details” and declined to commit to a specific approach.
Although most of the debate revolved around the Clinton-Obama-Edwards dynamic -- it was 10 minutes before any other candidate got a question -- Biden brought down the auditorium with two of the most crowd-pleasing lines of the evening. He dubbed Giuliani “probably the most unqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency.” As laughter died down he added, “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11.”
After the debate, David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Obama, fended off questions about whether his candidate missed his chance to put Clinton on the defensive. “He didn’t come here to attack anybody,” Axelrod said.
Axelrod’s counterpart in the Clinton camp, Mark Penn, appeared pleased. “At the end of the day [Obama] once again . . . took some swings, put some jabs in, made some criticisms and landed nothing on the major issues of the day he had identified -- Iraq and Iran,” Penn told reporters.
The debate, put on by MSNBC, excluded former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska on the grounds that he failed to meet organizers’ fundraising and polling thresholds.