With accusations of racial insensitivity flying, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton worked hard Tuesday evening to smooth over any civil rights differences during an MSNBC Democratic presidential debate that gave former Sen. John Edwards an opening to lob potshots at the front-runners on the economy, nuclear power and the war in Iraq.
The debate in Las Vegas, which was televised by MSNBC and streamed live on msnbc.com, took place without Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who lost a last-minute court battle after attorneys for NBC Universal persuaded the Nevada Supreme Court to uphold its decision to block him from the debate.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Instead, only the three leading candidates — Clinton, of New York; Obama, of Illinois; and Edwards, of North Carolina — fielded questions from the moderators, Brian Williams, Tim Russert and Natalie Morales of NBC News.
The question of race came up immediately on the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy was part of a clash between the Clinton and Obama campaigns over the past week. But both candidates, who issued conciliatory statements Tuesday, sought to further smooth the waters, saying they respected each other’s commitment to civil rights.
Edwards seizes an opening
The front-runners’ determination to bury the hatchet gave Edwards an opening to further raise his profile after stronger-than-expected showings in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
When Russert turned the discussion to the war in Iraq, Edwards noted that Obama and Clinton were voicing similar ideas about when and how to pull U.S. troops out of combat. He said his commitment to a U.S. withdrawal was stronger.
“I think there are real differences here, and they’re not subtle,” Edwards said, vowing to “have all combat troops out in the first year that I’m president of the United States.”
“I will end combat missions,” he said. “And while I'm president, there will be no permanent military bases in Iraq.”
While Clinton and Obama objected that their positions were largely the same as Edwards’, the exchange allowed him to go on the offensive and steal some of the intense focus from the front-runners.
Likewise, when taking his chance to question his rivals, Edwards pointedly mentioned the huge sums of money both Clinton and Obama have raised from drug and insurance companies, asking, “Do you think these people expect something, or are they just interested in good government?”
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‘Race has always been an issue’
Most of the pre-debate buzz surrounded the accusations traded by supporters of Obama and Clinton over race. Obama backers accused Clinton of slighting King’s achievements, while Clinton supporters claimed that the Obama camp was twisting her words for political advantage among black voters.
“We both sometimes have exuberant and uncontrollable supporters,” Clinton said. “... I think it’s appropriate on Dr. King’s birthday to recognize that all of us are here as a result of what he did.”
Obama echoed the sentiment.
“Race has always been an issue in politics in this country, but one of the premises of my campaign ... is that we can’t solve these challenges unless we can come together as a people and not fall into the same traps as we have in the past,” he said.
Asked whether he regretted that his campaign was pushing the story of racial divisiveness, Obama replied, “Not only in hindsight, but going forward.”
For her part, Clinton sidestepped when asked whether she would ban businessman Robert Johnson from a role in her campaign. Johnson made an evident reference to Obama’s youthful drug use in a weekend appearance, although he denied that was his intent.
Still, asked whether Johnson’s comments were inappropriate, she replied, “Yes, they were.”
Michigan primary vies for attention
Obama, winner of the Iowa caucuses; Clinton, winner of the New Hampshire primary; and Edwards were competing for attention with the results of Tuesday’s Republican primary in Michigan, where the polls closed an hour before their debate got under way at 9 p.m. ET.
The Democratic primary in Michigan promised little or nothing of consequence after state party officials insisted on holding it earlier than the Democratic National Committee wanted, with the result that no delegates were to be awarded. NBC News projected that Clinton would receive the most votes; a significant number of voters also chose “uncommitted.”
The courts also figured in a second case in Nevada, where a few of Clinton’s supporters sought to force a change in the ground rules for the state’s caucuses Saturday.
Their objective was to prevent several caucuses along the Las Vegas strip, where thousands of Culinary Workers Union employees — many of them Hispanic or black — hold jobs.
The rules were approved in March, when Clinton was the overwhelming national front-runner in the race. But the union voted to endorse Obama last week, and the lawsuit followed.
Plenty of agreement on the stage
The tenor of the debate itself, however, belied the rancor between the two campaigns.
At one point, Obama rejected a suggestion that race played a part in his surprise loss to Clinton in New Hampshire, saying he trailed because “Senator Clinton ran a terrific campaign.”
For her part, Clinton said she had “the highest regard for both Senator Obama and Senator Edwards.”
“I’ve worked with them. I have, you know, supported them in their previous runs for office. There’s no doubt that when we have a nominee, we’re going to have a totally unified Democratic Party.”
Indeed, the biggest disagreement came over a local issue: the Energy Department’s longstanding plan to store radioactive waste at the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada.
Clinton accused Obama of backing federal funding for Exelon Corp., which is based in Obama’s state, Illinois, and is a significant contributor to his campaign.
Obama responded that he nonetheless opposed the Yucca Mountain plans. Edwards, meanwhile, used the discussion to turn the debate toward nuclear power, which he claimed he was alone on the stage in opposing completely.
“I’ve heard Senator Obama say he’s open to the possibility of additional nuclear power plants. Senator Clinton said at a debate earlier, standing beside me, that she was agnostic on the subject,” said Edwards, who acknowledged that early in his Senate career he supported the Yucca Mountain plan but had changed his mind in light of “new evidence.”
“I am not for it or agnostic. I am against building more nuclear power plants, because I do not think we have a safe way to dispose of the waste,” he said. I think they’re dangerous, they’re great terrorist targets, and they’re extraordinarily expensive.”
“What I have said is that if we could figure out a way to provide a cost-efficient, safe way to produce nuclear energy, and we knew how to store it effectively, then we should pursue it because what we don’t want is to produce more greenhouse gases,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.