Their debate truce obliterated in a blizzard of recriminations, Democratic candidates for president on Monday questioned one another’s honesty and fitness for the White House in a televised confrontation notable for its nasty tone.
The harshness of their exchanges was an odd coda to a day in which the Democrats paid tribute to the nonviolent movement propelled by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated Monday and in whose honor the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and CNN sponsored the two-hour session.
The bitterness was particularly acute between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, who belittled each other as if opening their opposition-research files and flinging out the contents. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards forced his way into the debate at several points as if to remind voters of a calmer, less divisive option.
The sharpest exchange came near the opening of the debate, when Obama was asked to respond to criticism by Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, that the Illinois senator’s economic stimulus proposal doesn’t add up. Obama tersely denied it, leading Clinton to mock his comments.
“Your record and what you say does matter,” Clinton told Obama. “And when it comes to a lot of the issues that are important in this race, 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 went on to describe Obama as saying that “he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10-15 years.” Actually, he had told interviewers in Nevada several days ago that Republicans had cornered the market in ideas for much of that time -- but he had not endorsed them.
In a brutal back-and-forth of interruptions, Obama replied:
“You just said that I complimented the Republican ideas. That is not true.”
He pointed to his background as a community organizer during those years to contrast himself with Clinton.
“What I said,” Obama told her, “and I will provide you with the quote, what I said is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative public figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to, because while I was working on those streets, watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart.”
Clinton -- who has been criticized during the campaign for not standing up to the merchandising giant while on its board from 1986 to 1992 -- responded that she had taken stands against Republican programs.
“And I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago,” she said.
Obama, offered an opportunity later to respond to Clinton’s reference, said that as a law firm associate he had represented a church group that partnered with businessman Antoin Rezko. Obama said he worked on the matter for five hours.
Rezko, one of Obama’s earliest patrons, is scheduled to go on trial next month on federal charges alleging he joined a scheme to force investment firms seeking business from Illinois state pension funds to pay kickbacks. Obama is not alleged to be involved in any wrongdoing, and on Saturday he announced that he would donate to charity $40,350 in past political contributions from seven Chicago-area individuals who appear to be linked to Rezko.
Edwards at several times in the debate presented himself as the sole candidate thinking of voters as the other two fired on each other.
“I also want to know on behalf of voters here in South Carolina, this kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get healthcare? How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?” he asked, facing the audience.
“We have got to understand this is not about us personally. It is about,” he said, as the audience interrupted with cheers, “what we are trying to do for this country and what we believe in.”
For his part, Edwards criticized both of his rivals. He took on Clinton when she declined his call for banning lobbyists from the White House.
Yet while he has joined with Obama to criticize Clinton in past debates -- resulting in a sympathy surge for her, political analysts believe -- on Monday he took aim at Obama as well. He joined with Clinton to disparage Obama’s vote against a ceiling of 30% on interest charges for credit cards.
“You’ve criticized Hillary, you’ve criticized me for our votes,” he told Obama. “All I’m saying is what’s fair is fair.”
The contentiousness of the debate marked a breathtaking turn from the genteel, insult-free debate before Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada. The behavior Monday underscored the stakes in South Carolina’s Saturday primary.
In a state where about half of the potential Democratic primary voters are African American, Obama was hoping for a striking victory after disappointing second-place showings in recent contests in New Hampshire and Nevada. Clinton was hoping to, if not continue her winning streak, at least limit Obama’s margin.
For Edwards, a strong finish in his native state is considered a must if his campaign is to survive much beyond the primary. At times Monday, as he pressed his argument that more than any of the other candidates, he has pushed for the sorts of programs advocated by the African American community, his intensity was obvious.
At times, too, there was joking discomfort at the notion of asking an audience made up largely of African Americans to side with him.
“It’s amazing, now, being the white man,” he said
“Feeling all defensive about it,” Obama joked. “John, it’s all right, man.”
“It’s different,” Edwards said.
Obama, too, was forced to squirm a bit when moderator Wolf Blitzer noted that U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), an African American legislator, suggested a vote for Clinton was a smarter move.
But he generated guffaws from the crowd when he was asked by questioner Joe Johns about writer Toni Morrison’s past assertion that Bill Clinton was “our first black president -- blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”
“Well,” Obama said, to audience laughter. He praised what he called Clinton’s “enormous affinity” with the African American community, and praised white Southerners like the Arkansas-born Clinton who helped transform the region’s views on matters of race.
“I would have to, you know, investigate more, you know, Bill’s dancing abilities and . . . some of this other stuff before I accurately judged whether he was, in fact, a brother,” Obama concluded, his remarks broken up repeatedly by the audience laughter and cheers.
“Well, I’m sure that can be arranged,” Sen. Clinton responded.
For her part, Clinton was fiercely insistent that she represented the Democratic Party’s best shot against the Republican nominee in November.
She cast herself as most ready to assume the Oval Office, and she suggested that she was better suited to take on foreign-policy challenges. She repeated her favorite line about having spent 35 years in the service of the country.
But she also repeatedly said that she had been tested in the controversies that hit the Clinton White House.
“I’m used to taking the incoming fire. I’ve taken it for 16 years. But when you get into this arena,” she told Obama at one point, “you can’t expect to have a hands-off attitude about your record.”
Picking up on Edwards’ contention that Arizona Sen. John McCain would be the GOP nominee, she said that the general election would then be about national security, and that she is “better positioned and better able” to take him on.
“If it is indeed the classic Republican campaign, I’ve been there, I’ve done that,” she said. “They’ve been after me for 16 years, and much to their dismay, I am still here. And I intend to be still here when that election comes around and we win in November 2008.”
The debate was split into two formats. Initially the candidates stood at lecterns -- before changing to comfy chairs -- and in the former setting had their most tenacious disputes. Edwards criticized Obama’s support for a trade measure that he said would hurt American businesses. The candidates sparred over their healthcare proposals, with Clinton and Edwards criticizing Obama for not forcing nearly every uninsured adult to buy health coverage, as their plans would.
“I believe that there is not a single man, woman and child in America who’s not worthy of healthcare,” Edwards said.
Obama responded that under his plan anyone who wants healthcare would have access to it.
“I believe the problem is not that folks are trying to avoid getting healthcare,” he said. “The problem is they can’t afford it.”