MARION, Ind. - Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton turned up the rhetoric yesterday in their heated primary battle as she issued a new debate challenge and he complained that the race has largely been reduced to trivia while working families feel economic pain.
Clinton took the debate dispute to a new level, challenging Obama to face off with her in a debate without a moderator, Lincoln-Douglas style.
"Just the two of us, going for 90 minutes, asking and answering questions, we'll set whatever rules seem fair," Clinton said while campaigning in South Bend.
Her campaign made the offer formal with a letter to the Obama campaign. Obama aides said they were studying the letter.
Obama aides said he had already debated Clinton 21 times, "the most in primary history."
"Over the next 10 days we believe it's important to talk directly to the voters of Indiana and North Carolina," said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs.
The more open style of debating where each side presents an argument gets its name from the famed debates that took place during the 1858 US Senate race in Illinois between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas.
Trailing in delegates and the popular vote, Clinton has been stepping up the pressure on Obama for more debates in advance of primaries in nine days in Indiana and North Carolina. Clinton said Obama won't debate because he's unhappy with questions from moderators during the April 16 debate just before the Pennsylvania primary. After that debate, Obama complained it focused too much on political trivia and too little on real issues.
Clinton was focused yesterday in eastern Indiana along the Ohio border in industrial pockets as well, seeking to build a coalition of working-class voters similar to the one that served her well in Ohio.
"If you watched the last few weeks of this campaign, you'd think that all politics is about is negative ads and bickering and arguing, gaffes, and sideline issues," Obama said at a rally in this aging industrial city. "There's no serious discussion about how to bring jobs back to Anderson."
Obama and rival Hillary Clinton were both stumping in the heart of Republican territory. Obama sought to reach across party lines and said he has struggled to avoid back-and-forth bickering, and focus on issues such as plant closings.
"I've been trying to resist that in this campaign and I will continue to resist it when I'm president of the United States," he said.
Obama spoke out against suspending a tax on gasoline during the summer months, a move supported by Clinton and the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, saying it may not bring down prices and would deplete a fund used for building highways.
"The only way we're going to lower gas prices over the long term is if we start using less oil," Obama said in Anderson.
The senator from Illinois is favored in North Carolina's primary, but the polls indicate the Indiana race is too close to call.
Obama sought yesterday to ease worries that the intraparty fight will leave the party vulnerable in November. "I have my differences with Senator Clinton and she has her differences with me," he said. "We will be united in November and beat John McCain and the Republicans."