Democratic debate turns personal

In days before Pa. vote, candidates spar on honesty, working-class appeal

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Susan Milligan and Scott Helman
Globe Staff / April 17, 2008

PHILADELPHIA - Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton took their hard-fought battle for the Democratic presidential nomination down to a deeply personal level in a nationally televised debate last night, questioning each other's honesty, appeal to working-class voters, and electability in November.

Clinton, seeking momentum in the dwindling weeks of the primary campaign, accused Obama of associating with controversial figures, including his own former preacher. Though she called Obama a "good man" and said, after some prodding, that he could win the White House, Clinton said he would have many liabilities in the fall campaign.

"They're going to be out there in full force," Clinton said of the Republicans. "I've been in this arena for a long time. I have a lot of baggage and everybody has rummaged through it for years."

Her argument appeared aimed at Pennsylvania voters, but perhaps more so at Democratic superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials whose votes will probably determine which candidate wins the nomination.

The debate, their 21st of the primary campaign but first in seven weeks, came at a critical juncture in the contest for Pennsylvania Democrats, whose vote in Tuesday's primary will set the race's course in the coming weeks. Clinton, who holds a narrow lead in the polls, must win to sustain her campaign, while Obama, ahead in overall delegates and popular vote, is angling for a knockout blow.

Obama accused Clinton of running a negative campaign, pointing to her attacks last night as further evidence. Obama said Clinton herself could not pass the electability test she was imposing on him. "By Senator Clinton's own vetting standards, I don't think she would make it," he said.

While Clinton criticized Obama for his acquaintance with Bill Ayers, a former leader of the Weather Underground, a violent 1960s radical group, Obama noted that her husband, former president Bill Clinton, had pardoned two members of the same group. With Clinton's own political baggage, Obama said, "There is no doubt that the Republicans would attack either of us."

The first 45 minutes of the nearly two-hour debate - broadcast by ABC from Philadelphia's National Constitution Center - were devoted solely to politics and electability.

Obama and Clinton both emphasized the need for party unity and each sought to show respect for one another and confidence in the other's viability against Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. Yet they also tried to raise questions about one another's chances. And neither candidate appeared pleased with the suggestion by former governor Mario M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, that the two foes agree in advance to team up on a Democratic ticket.

Both senators - Obama, a well-to-do lawyer and best-selling author who has earned more than $8 million over the past eight years, and Clinton, who with her husband, has collected some $109 million during that period - cast themselves as champions of the working class. Clinton referred to her grandfather's history as a factory worker in Scranton, Pa.; Obama recalled his childhood in a single-parent household and his work as a community organizer.

Clinton seized on the chance to attack Obama for his comments earlier this month that many economically struggling Pennsylvanians in small towns are "bitter" and "cling to guns or religion."

"That is a fundamental sort of misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad," Clinton said. "And I similarly don't think that people cling to their traditions, like hunting and guns, either, when they are frustrated with the government. I just don't believe that's how people live their lives."

She continued, "What's important is that we all listen to one another, and we respect one another, and we understand the different decisions that people make in life, because we're a stronger country because of that."

Obama acknowledged that he "mangled" his observation about small-town America, but said the flap showed precisely what was wrong with American politics.

"The problem that we have in our politics, which is fairly typical, is that you take one person's statement, if it's not properly phrased, and you just beat it to death. And that's what Senator Clinton's been doing over the last four days," Obama said. "I do think it's important to recognize that it's not helping that person who's sitting at the kitchen table who is trying to figure out how to pay the bills at the end of the month."

Obama also noted how Clinton was roundly attacked for saying during the 1992 campaign that she did not want to spend her days as first lady baking cookies and holding teas. "People attacked her for being elitist," he said. "I remember watching that on TV and saying, 'Well, that's not who she is.' "

Clinton used Obama's comments about bitter Pennsylvanians, his involvement with his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and his relationship with Ayers to raise concerns about Obama's electability.

"It's clear that as leaders that we have a choice about who we associate with, and who we kind of give our seal of approval to," Clinton said. "These are problems, and they raise questions in people's minds."

Obama acknowledged that many of Wright's remarks - such as his sermon that America bore responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks - were "objectionable," but said he was not present for the sermons, which have been replayed repeatedly and used against him.

"I believe that he loves this country," Obama said. But, he said, Wright is "also angry about the injustice that he sees."

While Obama found himself on the defense for most of the first hour of the debate, Clinton, too, was questioned about her honesty. In a new national ABC News/Washington Post poll, 54 percent of Democratic voters surveyed said they view her unfavorably, and 58 percent said she is not trustworthy.

A voter who appeared via videotape said Clinton "really lost my vote" when she exaggerated the danger she faced when she took a trip to Bosnia in 1996 as first lady. (Clinton had said several times in the campaign that she faced sniper fire at the airport, an account proven wrong by television footage showing a smiling Clinton greeted by welcomers in a peaceful ceremony.)

"I have been embarrassed by it, I've apologized for it, and I've said it was a mistake," she said.

In the second half of the debate, the two candidates delved into foreign and domestic policy, again airing their differences over whether to meet unconditionally with leaders of rogue countries - he would, she wouldn't - and on their plans to shore up Social Security. Obama has said he would consider raising the cap on income that is taxed for Social Security, while Clinton has refused to commit to a method for keeping the program solvent.

Both insisted they would fulfill their pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground, and both said they would cut taxes for middle-class Americans. And neither would be pinned down on whether they supported the District of Columbia's ban on handguns, which is under review by the Supreme Court.

Obama, responding to moderator Charles Gibson of ABC, said, "Well, Charlie, I confess I obviously haven't listened to the briefs and looked at all the evidence."

Asked the same question, Clinton replied, "I don't know the facts."

Scott Helman can be reached at, and Susan Milligan can be reached at

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