Barack Obama wasn’t kidding when he said he would start speaking out more aggressively against the Clintons.
From his first answer at a highly acrimonious debate Monday night, the Illinois senator went after the first couple of Democratic politics with a tenacity he had not shown before in his campaign of hope. He drew quick return fire from Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is pointing her campaign toward Super Tuesday Feb. 5 when more than half the Democratic delegates are at stake.
John Edwards played the role of referee, but many of his calls went against Obama. That double-teaming with Clinton was a reflection of Obama’s strong standing in the South Carolina primary Saturday in which at least half of the voters are expected to be black. Obama needs to protect his standing with that group to win South Carolina and maintain his strong position against Clinton, who came back to defeat him in New Hampshire after a big Obama victory in Iowa.
He cannot afford to ignore the criticisms coming from the Clinton campaign — most prominently and aggressively from the former president. Even though Bill Clinton is beloved by many black voters, Obama accused both Clintons of playing loose with the facts and being willing to do anything to get elected.
“There’s a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate,” Obama said. “And 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.”
“Your record and what you say does matter,” Clinton retorted. “And when it comes to a lot of the issues that are important in this race, it is sometimes difficult to understand what Senator Obama has said, because as soon as he is confronted on it, he says that’s not what he meant.”
Their debate only intensified from there, with the two candidates shouting over one another, jabbing fingers in the air and glaring at one another while Edwards struggled to get a word in.
When Clinton criticized Obama for complimenting Republicans in a recent newspaper interview, Obama responded by defending his comments about Ronald Reagan. Clinton said she wasn’t talking about Reagan.
“Your husband did,” Obama said.
“Well, I’m here. He’s not,” she snapped.
“Well, I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” Obama complained.
Obama said while he was working on the streets of Chicago, helping workers whose jobs were shipped overseas, Clinton was “a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.”
Moments later the former first lady responded that she was fighting for workers while Obama was representing a now-indicted political patron “in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.”
He said her current opposition to a bankruptcy bill that she previously voted for meant voters can’t trust what she says. Clinton suggested Obama did the bidding of the insurance companies and refuses to take responsibility for his votes.
And on it went.
Clinton criticized Obama for voting “present” 130 times while he was in the Illinois state Senate, refusing to take a yes or no position on bills that would keep sex shops away from schools and limit the rights of victims of sexual abuse, among other things. Edwards chimed in to press Obama on the issue.
“What if I had just not shown up to vote on things that really mattered to this country?” Edwards said. “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.”
“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 led,” Obama responded.
The second half of the debate was less personal, and Obama even allowed that former President Clinton had earned his enormous affinity in the black community when he was asked if Clinton deserved his title as the “first black president.”
“I have to say that, 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.
“Well, I’m sure that can be arranged,” Clinton responded.
Nedra Pickler covers the Democratic presidential campaign for The Associated Press.