Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama accused each other of repeatedly and deliberately distorting the truth for political gain Monday night in a highly personal, finger-wagging debate that ranged from the war in Iraq to Bill Clinton’s role in the campaign.
Obama told the former first lady he was helping unemployed workers on the streets of Chicago when “you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.”
Moments later, Clinton said that she was fighting against misguided Republican policies “when you were practicing law and representing your contributor … in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.”
Obama seemed particularly irritated at the former president, whom he accused in absentia of uttering a series of distortions to aid his wife’s presidential effort.
“I’m here. He’s not,” she snapped.
“Well, I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” Obama countered.
The two rivals, joined by former Sen. John Edwards, debated at close quarters five days before the South Carolina primary — and 15 days before the equivalent of a nationwide primary across 20 states that will go a long way toward settling the battle for the party’s nomination.
Hillary Clinton was the national front-runner for months in the race, but Obama won the kickoff Iowa caucuses three weeks ago, knocking her off-stride. She recovered quickly, winning the New Hampshire primary in an upset, and on Saturday, won the popular vote in the Nevada caucuses while Obama won one more delegate than she.
The Democratic electorate in South Carolina is expected to be roughly 50 percent black, an evident advantage for Obama in a historic race that matches a black man against a woman.
Even in the superheated atmosphere of the primary, the statements and exchanges between Clinton and Obama were unusually acrimonious. The debate came as the two campaigns continued to complain about dirty politics and disenfranchisement of voters in last Saturday’s Nevada caucuses.
Obama suggested the Clintons were both practicing the kind of political tactics that had alienated voters.
“There’s 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 the people are looking for right now is somebody who’s going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we’ve seen in Washington.”
Clinton countered: “I do think that your record and what you say does matter.”
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 is about what we are trying to do for this country,” Edwards said to applause from the audience.
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’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 is very difficult to have a straight-up debate with you because you never take responsibility for any vote,” Clinton said to loud boos.
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. “What if I had just not shown up to vote on things that really mattered to this country? It would have been safe for me politically. It would have been the careful and cautious thing to do, but I have a responsibility to take a position even when it has political consequences for me.”
Obama said most of his present votes didn’t have political consequences but were because of technical or legal concerns.
“Don’t question, John, the fact that on issue after issue that is important to the American people, I haven’t simply followed, I have lead,” Obama said.
“Present” votes are common in the Illinois legislature, and they have the same impact as a “no” vote. Legislators use them for a variety of reasons, from registering doubts about a measure’s legality to avoiding a firm position.
Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, an influential leader in South Carolina, suggested on Monday that Bill Clinton tone down his rhetoric. Questioned about it, Hillary Clinton said her husband was “a tremendous asset. .. I believe that this campaign is not about our spouses. It is about us. It is about each of us individually.”
Obama said he would expect the ex-president to campaign for his wife, but “I have been troubled … the degree to which my record is not accurately portrayed.”
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 of Bill’s dancing abilities and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother,” Obama said.
“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Clinton joked.
The debate was sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and CNN.
Associated Press Writers Beth Fouhy in South Carolina and Christopher Wills in Illinois contributed to this report.