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Debate Dwells on Obama's Past

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THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - April 21, 2008
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Democratic Debate Dwells on Barack Obama's Past
By Cathleen Decker and Noam N. Levey
The Los Angeles Times

Clinton and the moderators put him on the defensive for 
the first half of the tense Democratic face-off.

Philadelphia - The Democratic candidates for president 
debated forcefully Wednesday over who would prove more 
electable in November, with Hillary Rodham Clinton 
repeatedly raising questions about Barack Obama's past 
associations and Obama contending that her approach 
typified the blowtorch political style that Americans 
decry. 

Obama, the Illinois senator, was thrown on the defensive 
for the first half of the nearly two-hour debate. The 
moderators, ABC News anchors Charles Gibson and George 
Stephanopoulos, pressed him on his recent comments about 
"bitter" small-town Pennsylvanians; his former pastor, 
the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.; his acquaintance with a 
long-ago member of the Weather Underground group; and the 
absence of an American flag in his lapel - though no one 
else on stage wore one. 

Clinton criticized Obama as well. She defended those who 
she said were "taken aback and offended" by Obama's remarks 
at a recent San Francisco fundraiser that voters upset by 
economic downturns "get bitter, they cling to guns or 
religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or 
anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment." 

The New York senator repeatedly zeroed in on Wright and - 
after Stephanopoulos opened the issue - Obama's relation-
ship with fellow Chicagoan William Ayers, the 1960s radical 
who is now an education professor at the University of 
Illinois. She noted that Obama and Ayers were at one point 
on the same philanthropic board. 

"I think it is, again, an issue that people will be asking 
about," said Clinton, who repeatedly characterized herself 
as thoroughly vetted during her husband's administration. 

Adopting a more-in-sorrow-than-anger mien, she added: "I 
know Sen. Obama's a good man, and I respect him greatly, 
but I think that this is an issue that certainly the 
Republicans will be raising. And it goes to this larger 
set of concerns about, you know, how we are going to 
run against John McCain," the unofficial GOP nominee. 

Obama noted that Clinton's husband had pardoned associates 
of the Weather Underground in the closing days of his 
tenure, and sought to turn Clinton's barbs into proof that 
he, in November, would be able to "take a punch." He 
renewed his objections to Wright's most inflammatory state-
ments but said that they had overshadowed the good he had 
done as pastor, until recently, of Obama's Chicago church. 

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The reference to Ayers, whom Obama characterized as a 
casual acquaintance, led the Illinois senator to upbraid 
Stephanopoulos and by extension Clinton. It made no sense, 
Obama said, that he be blamed for "somebody who engaged 
in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old." 

More broadly, Obama argued that Clinton's approach was the 
very thing his campaign was meant to change. Defending his 
comments about the economically disaffected - which he 
acknowledged were "mangled up" - he said that as a person 
of faith and one who respected the rights of gun owners, 
he meant no insult. 

"The problem that we have in our politics, which is fairly 
typical, is that you take one person's statement, if it's 
not properly phrased, and you just beat it to death. And 
that's what Sen. Clinton's been doing over the last four 
days," he said. 

He expressed sympathy for criticism Clinton has received 
over the years from political opponents. 

"But the problem is that that's the kind of politics that 
we've been accustomed to," he said. "And I think Sen. 
Clinton learned the wrong lesson from it, because she's 
adopting the same tactics. What the American people want 
are not distractions. They want to figure out how are we 
actually going to deliver on healthcare; how are we going 
to deliver better jobs for people; how are we doing to 
improve their incomes; how are we going to send them to 
college?" 

The Philadelphia debate, aired nationwide on ABC from the 
National Constitution Center, followed days of bickering 
between the two candidates over Obama's San Francisco 
comments. Clinton hammered Obama in appearances and on 
the airwaves, praising the role of faith and gun ownership 
in many voters' lives. That prompted retaliatory comments 
and an ad from Obama that characterized Clinton's response 
as evidence of the kind of politics he means to eradicate.

The tenor of the feud underscored the stakes, particularly 
for Clinton, in Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary. Behind in 
delegates and losing ground among the party superdelegates, 
whose judgments may determine the nominee - since neither 
will reach the magic nomination number on elected delegates 
alone - Clinton is counting on an emphatic victory to give 
her momentum for future contests in North Carolina and 
Indiana. 

But her once-substantial lead in public opinion polls in 
Pennsylvania had slipped in the weeks since the last big 
contests in March. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll 
published Wednesday showed Clinton with a 5-percentage-
point lead, well below the margin she would need to make 
meaningful inroads into Obama's lead among delegates and 
in the popular vote. 

During the debate, the 21st among Democratic candidates 
but the first since the two squared off in Cleveland in 
February, Clinton appeared to be directing her appeal 
to the superdelegates as much as to voters. While Obama 
repeatedly castigated McCain's policies, including the 
Republican's proposals to address the nation's mortgage 
crisis, Clinton implied that Obama would run a poor second 
to McCain in November were he to be the Democratic nominee. 

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Twice Stephanopoulos asked Clinton whether Obama could beat 
McCain before she offered, "Yes. Yes. Yes. Now, I think I 
can do a better job." 

Asked whether Clinton could beat McCain, Obama quickly 
offered, "Absolutely, and I've said so before." 

Both candidates invoked pledges of party unity, whomever 
ends up with the nomination. But Clinton's was worded oddly 
for a candidate who has promised to fight on until the 
summer convention. 

"I will do everything to make sure that the people who 
supported me support our nominee," Clinton said early in 
the debate. "I will go anywhere in the country to make 
the case." 

With the moderators and Clinton raising assorted questions 
about Obama's past for the first half of the debate, issues 
received relatively short shrift. Not until 50 minutes in 
was a policy issue - Iraq - asked about by the moderators. 
More than an hour went by before a question was asked about 
what Stephanopoulos called "the No. 1 issue on Americans' 
minds" - the economy. 

Asked about McCain's accusations that the Democratic 
nominee would raise taxes, Clinton flatly ruled out a 
tax hike on middle-class Americans, whom she defined as 
those making less than $250,000 per year. Obama countered 
that he planned to lower taxes on the middle class, but 
he left open the option of raising capital gains taxes. 

Clinton criticized his proposal to raise the threshold for 
Social Security payroll taxes, arguing that would hit 
"educators in the Philadelphia area or in the suburbs, 
police officers, firefighters and the like." 

Obama said the threshold now was $97,000 a year - meaning 
only those who made more than that would be affected by a 
hike. "Most firefighters, most teachers, you know, they're 
not making over $100,000 a year," he told Clinton. 

Given the lengths they have gone to recently to express 
understanding of Pennsylvania's many gun owners, both 
candidates were visibly uncomfortable when asked to explain 
their positions on gun control. It was, they were reminded, 
the first anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech. 

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Both voiced support for local governments' rights to place 
limits on guns. Neither would take a position on the hand-
gun ban the District of Columbia is fighting to uphold 
before the Supreme Court. 

"I confess, I obviously haven't listened to the briefs and 
looked at all the evidence," Obama said. 

"I don't know the facts," Clinton said.

With acrimony marking the closing days before the 
Pennsylvania contest, the first question posed to the 
candidates drew an unintentionally comical response. 

Moderator Gibson raised a proposal by former New York 
Gov. Mario M. Cuomo - and countless voters - that the 
two team up on the ticket in November. Why not? Gibson 
asked. 

There was a pause, which extended until laughter broke 
out in the audience and the candidates smiled. 

"Don't all speak at once," Gibson said.

Both candidates offered promises of party unity. And 
nothing more. 

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Decker reported from Los Angeles and Levey from 
Philadelphia. 

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