Democratic debate singles out Clinton

PHILADELPHIA – Trailing in national polls and with supporters growing restless, Barack Obama challenged Hillary Rodham Clinton’s electability and candor in a spirited debate Tuesday night. But he failed to rattle the front-runner or do much, it seemed, to shake up the Democratic race.

Under fire from the first question the New York senator smiled through most of the two-hour session, often seconding the views of others on stage and joining the laughter during an attack on Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The sharpest exchange centered on suggestions that Clinton was too divisive to win the White House. She said Republicans’ focus on her candidacy showed – "in a perverse way" – its strength. "They obviously think that I am communicating effectively about what I will do as president,’ Clinton said.

"Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that’s a fight they’re very comfortable having," Obama, an Illinois senator, responded moments later. "It’s the fight that we’ve been through since the ’90s. … And what we don’t need is another eight years of bickering."

John Edwards, the aggressor throughout most of the evening, was even harsher. "Will she be the person who brings about change in this country?" asked the former North Carolina senator. "You know, I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in the Tooth Fairy, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I really don’t."

For the most part, however, the candidates spent the night rehashing old arguments over Iraq, Iran and Social Security. At one point, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson chided others for ganging up on Clinton.

"We need to be positive in this campaign," he said, as Clinton stood behind a nearby lectern, nodding in agreement. "Yes, we need to point out our differences … but I think it’s important we save our ammunition for the Republicans."

The only person on stage who appeared to leave Clinton unnerved was co-moderator Tim Russert of NBC, who pressed the senator on the Social Security issue. Clinton has said in public forums that she would not raise the cap on Social Security taxes, now set at earnings up to $97,500. But Russert cited an instance in which a reporter overheard her telling an Iowa voter that she would consider raising the cap for high-income earners.

"Why do you have one public position and one private position?" Russert asked.

"Well, Tim, I don’t," Clinton replied, saying the steps she favored were restoring "fiscal responsibility" to Washington, then appointing a bipartisan panel to examine ways to shore up the program. "I don’t want to balance Social Security on the backs of our seniors and middle-class families. That’s why I put fiscal responsibility first."

As for Edwards, he faces a win-or-go-home situation in Iowa, where he charmed audiences four years ago by shunning negative campaigning in his first bid for president. This time, Edwards has been far more pugnacious, taking the lead among Democrats in assailing his rivals.

In one of the night’s most pointed attacks, he suggested that Clinton was weighing her stance on issues such as Iran with an eye on moving from "primary mode to general election mode. I think that our responsibility as presidential candidates is to be in tell-the-truth mode all the time."

But even Edwards holstered the harsher rhetoric he often uses on the campaign trail.

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Title: Democratic debate singles out Clinton | Author: Mark Z. Barabak | Section: News | Published Date: 2007-10-31 | Internal ID: 6086