Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democratic presidential front-runner no longer, accused campaign rival Barack Obama of changing his positions on health care and "a number of issues" in a debate three days before the crucial New Hampshire primary.
"I have been entirely consistent in my position," countered Obama, adding that he and Clinton have a philosophical disagreement over her proposal to require Americans to purchase health insurance or face a penalty from the government.
Obama won the kickoff Iowa caucuses last Thursday, and the Illinois senator's remaining rivals — Clinton, former Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — can ill afford for him to gain further momentum with a victory in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary as well.
"You said you would vote against the Iraq war, you came to the Senate and voted for" funding, Clinton said, addressing Obama.
"I think we should get into examining everybody's record," the New York senator and former first lady said.
Obama's candidacy has soared on his pledge to bring change to Washington, and Clinton sought to blunt his advantage. "I think we're all advocating change," she said.
Poll shows tight race in N.H.
The stakes could not be higher. A poll released before the debate showed Obama and Clinton locked in a dead heat in New Hampshire, each with 33 percent support. Edwards was in third place with 20 percent and Richardson got just 4 percent in the poll conducted by CNN and New Hampshire television station WMUR. The survey conducted Jan. 4-5 had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
Edwards, the second-place finisher in Iowa, worked throughout the debate to align himself with Obama as an advocate for change in Washington, and described Clinton as a defender of the status quo. "Every time he speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack," Edwards said.
"I didn't hear these kind of attacks from Sen. Clinton when she was ahead," he said. "Now that she's not we hear them."
There were a few moments of humor.
"I've been in hostage negotiations that are a lot more civil than this," Richardson, a one-time diplomat, said at one point.
Asked what she could say to voters who don't find her likable enough, and seem to like Obama more, Clinton drew laughter. "Well, that hurts my feelings. ... But I'll try to go on."
She said she agreed that Obama was likable, then added, "I don't think I'm that bad."
That drew a wry response from Obama, who said, "You're likable enough, Hillary."
Hoping to knock Obama off stride
But with the first primary to choose delegates to this summer's national presidential nominating convention only three days away, Clinton had little time to make the case she hoped would knock Obama off stride.
Challenged on health care, Obama acknowledged that he has said if he were designing a system from scratch, he would set up a single-payer system that would give coverage to all. He said that is impractical, given the current system in which so many people receive their insurance from employers.
Obama's health care plan relies on government financial incentives and cost-cutting to help the uninsured afford coverage. But unlike Clinton and Edwards, he does not require adults to buy coverage or pay a penalty if they fail.
"I disagree with that because as I go around, I don't meet people who avoid getting health care. The problem is they can't afford it," he said.
Tough words on bin Laden
The opening moments of the debate produced agreement on Obama's summertime statement, controversial at the time, that he would take action against terrorist leader Osama bin Laden if he had actionable intelligence that he was hiding in Pakistan and the government there did not act.
"As much as possible," the United States should seek agreement from Pakistanis, Obama added.
Edwards agreed. "If I as president of the United States know where Osama bin Laden is I would go get him," the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee said.
Likewise, Richardson said that if diplomacy failed and the Pakistani government was incapable of moving against the terrorist leader, "then you do take that action."
Clinton agreed, saying, "At some point, probably when the missiles have been launched, the Pakistani government has to know they are on the way." She said that was important to make sure Pakistan did not jump to the conclusion that it was under attack from India, its longtime rival in south Asia.