A simmering feud between Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama erupted into charges of distortion and exaggeration in a gloves-off presidential debate Monday, with Clinton accusing him of representing a Chicago slumlord and Obama countering that she was a corporate lawyer for anti-union Wal-Mart.
Even in the superheated atmosphere of their fight for the party's nomination, the statements and exchanges between Clinton and Obama were unusually acrimonious and personal. The debate came as the two campaigns continued to complain about dirty politics and disenfranchisement of voters in last Saturday's Nevada caucuses.
As Obama tried to defend his recent comments about Republican ideas and Ronald Reagan, Clinton interrupted and said she has never criticized his remarks on Reagan.
"Your husband did," said Obama, who has accused the former president of misrepresenting his record.
"I'm here. He's not," she snapped.
"Well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," Obama said.
He persisted, suggesting the Clintons were both practicing the kind of political tactics that had alienated voters.
"There was a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton as well as her husband that are not factually accurate," Obama said. "I think that part of what people are looking for right now is someone who is going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we've seen in Washington."
Clinton countered: "I believe your record and what you say should matter."
Edwards fighting for his life
John Edwards, who badly trails his two rivals, tried to stay above the fray while pleading for equal time.
"Are there three people in this debate, not two?" he asked.
"We have got to understand, this is not about us personally. It's about what we are trying to do for this country," Edwards said to applause from the audience.
The bitter exchange underscored the closeness of the race for the party nod. Obama captured the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, Clinton bounced back with a win in New Hampshire and the two shared the spoils in Nevada. The first-in-the-South primary on Saturday in South Carolina is expected to produce a strong turnout from black voters, who could make up more than 50 percent of the Democratic electorate.
In two weeks, some two dozen states, including California, New York and Illinois, will vote on the nominee.
Rivals take swing at other’s resumé
One of the rancorous exchanges came over whether Obama had praised Republican ideals and Reagan. Obama argued that he had not complimented GOP ideas and his comments had been misconstrued.
"What I said was is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to. Because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart," he told Clinton.
She countered that Obama's comments indicated the GOP ideas were worthy. Clinton said she had been challenging them "when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago."
Hillary Clinton, who was close with the Walton family, served on the Wal-Mart board from 1986 to 1992. In 2006, her Senate campaign returned $5,000 to the company's political action committee while citing differences with company policies.
A blind trust held by Clinton and her husband, the former president, included stock holdings in Wal-Mart. They liquidated the contents of the blind trust in 2007 because of investments that could pose conflicts of interest or prove embarrassing as she ran for president.
Chicago real estate developer and fast food magnate Antoin "Tony" Rezko was a longtime fundraiser for Obama. Prosecutors have charged him with fraud, attempted extortion and money laundering in what they allege was a scheme to get campaign money and payoffs from firms seeking to do business before two state boards.
Obama challenged over ‘present’ votes
Obama's campaign said Saturday it was giving to charities more than $40,000 from donors linked to Rezko. In 2006, when charges against Rezko were made public, Obama gave $11,500 in Rezko contributions to charities.
Often speaking over each other, Obama and Clinton bitterly complained about each other's legislative records. Obama questioned why the New York senator had voted for a bankruptcy bill that she later said she was glad hadn't passed, and Clinton criticized Obama for voting "present" on dozens of occasions while a member of the Illinois legislature.
"Senator Obama, it's hard to have a straight up debate with you because you never take responsibility for any vote," Clinton said to loud boos. "On issue after issue, you voted present ... Whenever someone raises that, there's always some sort of explanation."
Obama accused Clinton of playing loose with the facts and saying anything to get elected, while Edwards joined Clinton in criticizing Obama for the "present" votes.
"Why would you over 100 times vote present?" Edwards pointedly challenged Obama. He said he didn't simply refuse to vote on controversial bills in Congress. "It would have been safe for me politically ... but I have a responsibility to take a position even if it costs me politically."
Racial issues a backdrop
Obama said most of his present votes didn't have political consequences but were because of technical or legal concerns.
"Don't question, John, that on issue after issue that is important to the American people, I haven't followed. I have led," Obama said.
With the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as a backdrop, the candidates also addressed questions of racial equality.
Clinton and Edwards compared their records on helping to alleviate poverty, while Obama was asked if he agreed with the famed black novelist Toni Morrison who dubbed Bill Clinton "the first black president."
Obama praised the former president's "affinity" with black people but also drew laughs.
"I would have to investigate more, Bill's dancing abilities and some of this other stuff before I accurately judged whether he was, in fact, a brother," Obama said.
"I'm sure that can be arranged," Clinton joked.
The two-hour debate was sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and CNN.