Clinton heads into last-chance debate

Faltering Democrat Hillary Clinton Tuesday faced one of her last chances to derail Barack Obama’s presidential express train at their final debate before make-or-break nominating contests next week.

After a day of running battles Monday, Obama headed into the televised debate in Cleveland, Ohio buoyed by new polls suggesting his rival senator’s national support was collapsing.

One of the polls by CBS News and the New York Times gave the Illinois senator a 16-point lead over Clinton among Democrats nationwide, 54 percent to 38 percent.

Three weeks ago, before Obama reeled off 11 straight nominating wins, the rivals were level at 41 percent, and Clinton was 15 points up last month.

Since striking an elegiac tone at their last debate in Texas on Thursday, the former first lady has come out firing to insist that her campaign remains on track heading into the Ohio and Texas primaries next Tuesday.

But with other polls showing her once mighty lead in the scarred industrial state of Ohio narrowing, and the race in Texas too close to call, the New York senator needs to switch gears to salvage her White House dream.

But will she go for the jugular in Cleveland? Clinton had been expected to attack at last week’s debate in Austin, but instead pulled her punches while focusing on policy differences with her rival from Illinois.

And in a generous tribute to the man who is threatening to sink her hopes of becoming the first woman president, Clinton said that “no matter what happens in this contest … I am honored to be here with Barack Obama.”

For political pundits, abuzz with talk of infighting among Clinton insiders, that was a sign that the New York senator was searching for a graceful exit after Obama’s winning streak in February.

But on Saturday, Clinton betrayed no hint of defeat as she accused Obama of purloining Republican smear tactics to criticize her positions on healthcare and trade.

“Shame on you, Barack Obama,” she said at a rally in Ohio. “Meet me in Ohio. Let’s have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign.”

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson declined to say whether his boss would extend her fiery new line into the Cleveland clash.

“I will say we think these debates have been enormously helpful and clarifying for voters,” he said, adding Clinton did better than Obama when it came to in-depth discussions of the issues.

Obama’s spokesman Bill Burton said: “Senator Obama is going to continue to present his positive vision for change in this country and answer any attacks the Clinton campaign may present.”

A potential preview of the debate came Monday as the two Democrats traded barbs over foreign and trade policies, and fought over an alleged anti-Obama smear.

Clinton used a speech in Washington to portray her adversary as a dangerous risk on foreign affairs, suggesting Obama would need an “instruction manual” to guide him through global crises if elected president.

Before the speech, an Obama aide had already said sound judgment was the most important presidential attribute, highlighting Clinton’s Senate vote in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war.

The policy sparring came as a photograph emerged of Obama dressed in a Somali robe and turban, a reminder of his African heritage in a campaign where the issue of race has always lurked in the background.

Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe accused the Clinton team of “shameful, offensive fear-mongering,” but Wolfson angrily denied that her aides had passed the photo on to the Drudge Report website.

The Republicans could only look on amused as the Democrats stepped up their bickering, with Senator John McCain on the verge of knocking former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee out of the party’s presidential race next week.

No such clarity exists yet on the Democratic side, but Clinton needs blowout wins in Ohio and Texas to overhaul Obama’s lead in the delegate hunt.

The RealClearPolitics website put Obama in the driving seat with 1,374 delegates to Clinton’s 1,275. A total of 436 delegates are in play in next Tuesday’s primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont.