Candidates agreed only during question of allegiance for Israel
Hillary Clinton last night punched, kicked, scratched and mauled at Barack Obama – but failed to inflict enough damage to change the dynamic of a presidential contest before elections next week she must win to get her faltering White House run back on course.
In their 20th debate in the race for the Democratic nomination, Mrs Clinton was combative and determined throughout, repeatedly referring to herself as a “fighter” or prefacing remarks by saying – in a reference to Mr Obama’s speeches – “I’m not just talking about it.”
Her eyes glittered with aggression while she regularly pursed her lips, shook her head and folded her arms impatiently as her rival answered questions.
However, Mrs Clinton’s attempts to argue that she would be stronger on foreign policy than her counterpart appeared to have been undermined when she stumbled over the name of the man expected to be Russia’s next president, Dmitri Medvedev, while predicting that he would not be an independent leader.
When asked at a debate whether she knew the name of the chosen successor to President Putin, Mrs Clinton struggled to get it out, finally saying: “Medvedev – whatever.”
Mr Obama, who also failed to pronounce his name, was tense but calm during the 90-minute exchange, staring down at his notes and sometimes smiling at her efforts to knock him off course.
Both sides knew the stakes were sky high in their final face-to-face appearance before Tuesday’s votes in Ohio and Texas where Mr Obama’s gathering momentum has seen him already close – or wipe out – Mrs Clinton’s long-standing polling leads.
The first significant clash came with Mrs Clinton sounding sarcastic – even plaintive – as she vented some of the frustration that has been building within her campaign as Mr Obama scored 11 straight victories over her this month.
Citing a recent TV comedy sketch which parodied the media’s allegedly fawning attitude to Mr Obama, she said: “Can I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time?
“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?”
Her aides later claimed this was an attempt at humour, but the jeers it drew from some sections of the audience suggested that the tone of resentment with which she delivered it had caused the joke to fall flat.
When shown a video clip of Mrs Clinton deriding his messianic oratory as bring forth a “celestial choir”, Mr Obama said he would “give her points for delivery” and understood her argument, but wanted to make clear he was not running for president just to make speeches.
The two candidates were asked about bitter exchanges of recent days in which Mrs Clinton has accused her opponent’s campaign of distorting her views on trade and health policy. She said that some of Mr Obama’s tactics “have been disturbing” and added: “I think it’s important that you stand up for yourself.”
Mr Obama accepted his rival’s word that she had not authorised the distribution of a photograph showing him dressed in a turban and tribal costume which a gossip website had claimed was being circulated by her staff. “That is something we can set aside,” he said.
But Mr Obama went on to suggest Mrs Clinton’s complaints smacked of double standards. She has “constantly sent out negative attacks on us,” he said, “and we haven’t whined about it, because I understand that’s the nature of this campaign.”
They spent 16 minutes criticising each other’s health policy, with Mrs Clinton saying Mr Obama would leave millions of Americans without cover – a claim he rejected as inaccurate.
The two candidates also traded jabs over trade policy and the Nafta deal signed by Bill Clinton which is now blamed for the loss of thousands of jobs in Ohio’s manufacturing industry. Mrs Clinton said she had always had her reservations about it and promised to “opt out of Nafta” unless it could be re-negotiated with Mexico and Canada. Mr Obama said his rival had been inconsistent about the issue but agreed with her latest position.
Mrs Clinton said her experience in foreign policy made her best-placed to take on John McCain in November’s general election against the presumptive Republican nominee. “I will have a much better case to make on a range of the issues that, really, America must confront going forward and will be able to hold my own and make the case for a change in policy that will be better for our country,” she said.
Mr Obama responded by highlighting once more her vote in 2002 authorising military action in Iraq.
“Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on Day 1, but in fact she was ready to give in to George Bush on Day 1 on this critical issue.
“So the same person that she criticises for having terrible judgment — and we can’t afford to have another one of those — in fact she facilitated and enabled this individual to make a decision that has been strategically damaging to the United States of America.” Mrs Clinton later said she wished she could have that vote back.
Mr Obama was more uncomfortable with questions about his previous promises to sign up for strictly-limited public funding in the general election when Mr Obama is tempted to stick with private money after building up a million-strong database of donors.
“If I am the nominee I will sit down with John McCain and make sure we come up with a system that is fair to both sides,” he said, twice refusing to repeat his earlier pledge.
Mrs Clinton, asked a similarly tough question about whether she would release tax returns for the multi-million dollar fortune amassed by her and her husband, said she would do so soon, but that “I’m a little busy right now.”
She then tried to hit Mr Obama over his endorsement from Louis Farrakhan, the Chicago-based Nation of Islam leader who has made numerous anti-Semitic comments. Although Mr Obama said he had denounced remarks from a man he called “Minister Farrakhan”, Mrs Clinton said her opponent should have explicitly refused such support. “There’s a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” she said, “I just think we’ve got to be even stronger.”
Mr Obama diffused what might have been an explosive moment by saying, to laughter, that he could see any such distinction before adding: “I happily concede the point – I would reject and denounce.”
At the end of the debate, he once again sought to dismiss any impression of a significant gulf between them, saying the former First Lady would be a worthy presidential nominee. “Senator Clinton has campaigned magnificently. She is an absolutely outstanding public servant and I’me very proud to have campaigned with her,” he said with a gracious smile, even though “I think I would be better.”
David Axelrod, his chief strategist, said afterwards: “There were a lot of jabs thrown tonight – they were glancing blows.”
Mrs Clinton’s strategist, Mark Penn, said she had demonstrated “strength and passion” even though “Senator Obama always wants to have the last word”. Asked what she would do if she lost Texas and Ohio, he replied: “We’re looking to be successful in these states. We’re in this all the way.”