CLEVELAND — Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois came under a full-out assault Tuesday night from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in their last debate before crucial primaries in Ohio and Texas that could make or break Clinton’s campaign.
Clinton has heatedly attacked Obama in the past week, accusing him of distorting her record on trade and health care in mass mailings to Ohio voters, and she stayed on the attack Tuesday night.
“I have a great deal of respect for Senator Obama, but we have differences, and in the last several days, some of those differences in tactics and choices that Senator Obama’s campaign has made ... have been very disturbing to me,” she said at the outset of the debate.
Obama did not back down. He said that he had faced the same tactics from Clinton’s supporters but that “we haven’t whined about it because I understand that’s the nature of these campaigns.”
Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” and Tim Russert, NBC News’ Washington bureau chief, moderated the debate, which MSNBC telecast from Cleveland State University.
Dispute over details of health care plan
The flashpoint was a pair of mailings from the Obama campaign to Ohio voters that Clinton said unfairly depicted her positions on health care coverage and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Clinton objected to Obama’s accusation that she advocated measures to force all Americans to purchase health care coverage. Obama repeated the charge in the first exchange of the debate Tuesday, describing her position as a “mandate” to buy coverage.
“It’s been unfortunate that Senator Obama has consistently said that I would force people to have health care [coverage] whether they can afford it or not,” she said. “We should have a good debate that uses good information, not false, misleading and inaccurate information.”
Video: Clinton, Obama debate in Ohio Clinton said her proposal would not force low-income Americans into poverty by compelling them to pay for full health care coverage. She said it included surplus funding to subsidize coverage for families that could not afford it.
Clinton goes on trade offensive
The other Obama mailing accused Clinton of supporting NAFTA, which her husband, former President Bill Clinton, championed as president. That agreement and similar trade treaties are extremely unpopular in Ohio, which has suffered an exodus of blue-collar jobs to other countries, in part because of such pacts.
At a rally Saturday in Cincinnati, Clinton foreshadowed the importance of trade issues in the debate, saying: “Shame on you, Barack Obama. It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public.”
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Clinton said Tuesday night that she had always opposed NAFTA, which Obama said was news to him. He pointed out that she praised the deal as good for New York during her senatorial campaign.
Obama has said NAFTA should be renegotiated, a position he repeated Tuesday night, and he said he welcomed what he characterized as Clinton’s change of mind.
“I will make sure that we will renegotiate,” Obama said. “I think Senator Clinton’s answer on this one is right.”
Trade a delicate issue in Ohio, Texas
For Clinton, the issue is a delicate one. While NAFTA is considered a scourge in much of Ohio, it has been seen as a success in many parts of Texas, especially in southern areas of the state along the Mexican border, where Clinton has sought to mine significant support from Latino voters who have been a bedrock constituency.
While she has criticized NAFTA in Ohio, Clinton has made more nuanced statements in Texas, saying she intends to fine-tune the agreement to limit its downside.
In an an interview Monday with NBC affiliate KRIS of Corpus Christi, Clinton said NAFTA had “helped a lot of people” in Texas while hurting workers in some other parts of the country.
“We’ve got to take a hard look at it,” she said. “We’ve got to have a better-balanced approach so we get the advantages out of increased trade without undermining the American middle class and leading to the loss of jobs.”
The tone settled down thereafter, flaring only briefly when Obama said he “denounced” Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam for his long history of anti-Semitic statements but hesitated to “reject” Farrakhan’s support. Clinton said Obama needed to take a stronger stand.
“If Senator Clinton feels that ‘reject’ is stronger than the word ‘denounce,’ then I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce” Farrakhan’s support, Obama said to scattered laughter in the hall.
Obama has been conducting a behind-the scenes offensive against Farrakhan and his endorsement. Obama met privately over the weekend in Toldeo, Ohio, with Jewish leaders, whom he sought to reassure over his support for Israel, NBC’s Aswini Anburajan reported Tuesday night.
Obama picking up momentum
The showdown Tuesday night was the last head-to-head meeting between the Democratic front-runners before 370 delegates go up for grabs March 4, when Rhode Island and Vermont join Ohio and Texas in holding primaries.
Suggesting that it could defuse one of the hottest issues throughout the campaign, supporters of both candidates pointed to Clinton’s explicit admission — apparently for the first time — that she wished she could “take back” her original vote in 2002 to authorize the war in Iraq.
Lisa Caputo, a former spokeswoman for Clinton, said she thought Clinton’s comment was “consistent” with her past statements that she would not vote the same way now. But “it’s probably linguistically the furthest she’s taken it,” Caputo acknowledged.
David Wilhelm, a supporter of Obama who was chairman of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, was more direct, saying, “It sounded like new ground to me.”
But the clash over NAFTA was the keynote of the debate as Clinton seeks to blunt Obama’s momentum, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, an Obama supporter, did not think the exchange worked out well for her.
“I thought Barack was especially strong on trade,” Jackson said of Obama, who has won the last 11 primaries or caucuses. In doing so, Obama has pulled ahead of Clinton in many national polls and edged slightly ahead in most news organizations’ counts of delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
The Clinton campaign has consistently acknowledged that it must do well in Ohio and Texas, where she had, until recently, enjoyed large leads in public opinion polls, to have a realistic shot at taking the nomination, but the latest surveys ahead of the debate were not promising.
Obama pulled to within 6 percentage points of Clinton in an Ohio poll released Tuesday, trailing 50 percent to 44 percent. He trailed by 9 points in the same poll last week and 17 points two weeks ago in a state that the Clinton campaign has long seen as a “firewall” against Obama’s surging popularity.
The poll, conducted for NBC affiliates WKYC of Cleveland and WCMH of Columbus by SurveyUSA, questioned 790 likely voters Saturday through Monday. It reported a margin of sampling error of 3.6 percentage points.
Clinton seeks to ‘change the dynamic’
Obama’s gains were even more dramatic in Texas, where he has overtaken Clinton in the past week, according to a Texas poll released Tuesday.
The poll of 704 likely Texas Democratic voters, also conducted by SurveyUSA, found Obama leading by 49 percent to 45 percent, with a reported 3.8 percentage-point margin of error. Clinton led the same poll last week, 50 percent to 45 percent.
The Texas poll showed dramatic inroads by Obama into Clinton’s lead among Latino voters, which he cut from 33 points to 13 points in just a single week. Similarly, Clinton’s lead among female voters — 27 points last week — was down to 11 points Tuesday.
Wilhelm said Clinton had “a tough job” ahead of her.
“She’s got to change the dynamic of the race,” Wilhelm said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “But she’s got to do it in a year when people want to put an end to squabbling, want to put an end to bickering. ... How, in that context, do you change the dynamic of this race?”
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Bart Bedsole of KRIS-TV of Corpus Christi, Texas; Tom Brockman of WCMH-TV of Columbus, Ohio; and Tom Beres and Kim Wendel of WKYC-TV of Cleveland. NBC affiliate WLWT of Cincinnati also contributed to this report.