Toughening their stances as they appealed for votes in economically stricken Ohio, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that they would use the threat of opting out of the North American Free Trade Agreement to substantially renegotiate the treaty.
In a debate that was contentious -- between the candidates, and between Clinton and her questioners -- the two did not explicitly say that they would push for NAFTA to be rescinded.
But they did agree that they would use that threat to work environmental and job protections into the pact, a signature accomplishment of the administration of Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton.
“I will say, we will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it, and we renegotiate it on terms that are favorable to all of America,” Clinton said of the 1994 deal with Canada and Mexico.
“I will make sure that we renegotiate in the same way that Sen. Clinton talked about, and I think actually Sen. Clinton’s answer on this one is right,” Obama said.
That agreement notwithstanding, the candidates sharply disputed each other’s past positions on NAFTA. Each insisted that the other had backed it wholeheartedly -- though that appears to be doubtful on both sides -- and that they were being wronged by their opponents’ current characterizations.
Trade has reared up as a key issue in Ohio, which along with Texas will vote Tuesday in primaries that -- should she not win them -- could push Clinton out of the race and Obama toward the nomination.
The stakes were visible throughout the 90-minute debate, the last scheduled between the two Democratic candidates. It was held at Cleveland State University and sponsored by NBC News, the university, the city of Cleveland and the Ohio Democratic party.
As the final major planned event before Tuesday’s vote, the debate stood as Clinton’s best shot to reverse the momentum fueling Obama as he has won the last 11 electoral contests. Even her supporters, including her husband, have publicly said the New York senator needed to win in Texas and Ohio to stay in the race.
But polls have shown Clinton’s support ebbing.
Her once-comfortable lead in Texas has turned into an Obama lead in new polls, and her margin in Ohio, once more than 20 percentage points, was in single digits in some recent surveys.
Primaries also will be held Tuesday in Vermont and Rhode Island.
Leading up to the 90-minute debate, the key question was whether Clinton would assume the more bellicose approach she has favored in recent days, or the more placid style she has offered in recent debates, including last week in Austin.
The answer: a mix of both. Though both candidates worked hard to earnestly forward their policy prescriptions, Clinton had tart exchanges not only with Obama but with questioners Brian Williams and Tim Russert of NBC News.
She made what appeared to be a clear ploy for the sympathies of women voters, in particular, when she referred to a “Saturday Night Live” skit last week that portrayed reporters as obsequiously favoring Obama, to the point of making certain he was comfortable in a mock debate.
“Could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time?” Clinton said. “And I don’t mind. You know, I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live’, you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.
“I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues, but I’m happy to answer it.”
Later, she returned to the historic nature of her candidacy: “Obviously I am thrilled to be running to be the first woman president, which I think would be a sea change in our country and around the world, and would give . . . enormous hope and, you know, a real challenge to the way things have been done, and who gets to do them, and what the rules are.”
Obama came into the debate needing to not make an error that could reinvigorate Clinton’s campaign. His desire to cede no ground was evident as the two nitpicked each other’s healthcare plans.
The two spent much time on the major difference between their plans -- Clinton’s insistence that all adults must take part to make the plan work financially, and Obama’s contention that adults should not be forced into a system they may not be able to afford.
Clinton said that Obama’s argument that her plan would penalize Americans who could not afford to join the Clinton plan was “false, misleading and discredited.” Obama took strenuous exception to her insistence that his plan would leave out 15 million Americans.
“I think it’s very important to understand the context of this, and that is that Sen. Clinton has, in her campaign at least, has constantly sent out negative attacks on us, e-mail, robocalls, fliers, television ads, radio calls, and we haven’t whined about it because I understand that’s the nature of this campaign,” he said.
After the candidates’ painstaking review of their plans, moderator Williams dryly observed: “Well, a 16-minute discussion on healthcare is certainly a start.”
Threaded throughout the debate was the central question before Democratic voters Tuesday and, if the race is not decided, on through the spring: Will it be Clinton’s marriage of traditional experience and pugilistic instincts, or Obama’s lighter resume and promise to forge a unified political movement?
Using her past quarrels over universal healthcare as an example, Clinton said that “it takes a fighter” to turn words into action.
“The special interests are not going to give up without a fight,” she said. “And I believe that I am a fighter, and I will fight for the people of Ohio and the people of America.”
Obama said that Clinton’s effort to push a universal healthcare plan beginning in 1993 was doomed in part because she kept even other Democrats at arms’ length.
“Sen. Clinton ended up fighting not only just the insurance companies and the drug companies, but also members of her own party,” he said.
The war in Iraq, which has been central to many of the Democratic debates, arose again with Clinton arguing, essentially, that Obama’s early opposition to the war -- when he was in the Illinois state senate -- did not count.
“He didn’t have responsibility; he didn’t have to vote,” Clinton said, adding, “when he came to the Senate, he and I have voted exactly the same.”
Obama said his Senate votes, to secure funding for troops, were akin to the limited ways one has to get a bus out of a ditch -- implying that Clinton was among the drivers.
“The question is, who’s making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch?” he asked, adding later, “The fact is that Sen. Clinton often says that she is ready on Day One [to be president] but, in fact, she was ready to give in to George Bush on Day One on this critical issue.”
Russert pressed each candidate on matters of personal accountability, to little avail.
He noted that Obama agreed last year to accept public financing -- and the attendant spending limits -- as the Democratic nominee. Now, he said, “you seem to be waffling.”
Obama -- who has shattered fundraising records in the primary campaign -- declined to renew his pledge, but promised as the nominee to “sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that is fair for both sides.”
Russert asked Clinton about why she has not released her income tax returns, especially in light of the $5 million she lent her campaign earlier this month.
“I will release my tax returns,” Clinton replied.
“Why not now?” Russert asked.
“I will do it as others have done it, upon becoming the nominee or even earlier,” Clinton said, adding, “I’m a little busy right now.”
Clinton and Russert worked together in one instance: After Russert asked Obama his views on his endorsement by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, in light of his anti-Semitic remarks, the Illinois senator said he had denounced Farrakhan’s comments.
Clinton fired back that during her New York race, under similar circumstances, she had “rejected” the support of anti-Semitic individuals.
“If the word ‘reject,’ Sen. Clinton feels, is stronger than the word ‘denounce,’ then I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce,” Obama replied.
“Good. Good. Excellent,” Clinton said.
Barabak reported from Cleveland and Decker from Los Angeles.