Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are making their final pitches to voters in Ohio and Texas, must-win contests for Clinton, after a mostly somber and policy-filled debate that seemed unlikely to alter the political calculus of the race.
In sometimes testy exchanges, the two sparred over health care, the war in Iraq and trade, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement which was negotiated in her husband’s first term — but is seen by labor and other critics as a chief culprit in the loss of manufacturing jobs in Ohio and other industrial Midwestern states.
Both candidates have called for renegotiating parts of the trade pact, but in different terms.
It was their final debate before next Tuesday’s contests, which also include races in Vermont and Rhode Island.
Clinton needs big wins after 11 successive Obama victories and after Obama’s steady increase in gathering delegates. It seemed unlikely the debate at Cleveland State University would provide that lift.
Neither one seemed to knock the other off stride.
“I don’t think the debate changes a lot. Both came across as strong in the ways they’ve always been seen as strong,” said Wayne Fields, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies political rhetoric. Neither one managed to seriously erode the other’s credibility.
In a 90-minute session that was largely devoid of humor, Clinton tried for a light moment, invoking the opening skit on last week’s “Saturday Night Live” in which the news media is portrayed as going hard on the New York senator and light on Obama.
“In the last several debates I seem to get the first question all the time. I don’t mind. I’ll be happy to field it. I just find it curious if anybody saw “Saturday Night Live,” maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow,” she said.
But the line might have undercut Clinton’s own efforts to portray herself as a strong leader able to take on a range of challenges.
Obama seemed to have an awkward moment when grilled about an endorsement from Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan and remarks by his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which have stirred controversy.
The Farrakhan remarks, and a photograph circulating on the Internet of Obama dressed in traditional local garments during a visit to Kenya in 2006, could further fuel a longtime buzz on the Internet suggesting that the Illinois senator, who is a Christian, is either secretly a Muslim or has Islamic sympathies.
Obama distanced himself from Farrakhan’s comments, but he sidestepped a question on whether he would reject the endorsement, saying he had denounced Farrakhan in the past for anti-Semitic statements.
Clinton said rejecting support was different from denouncing it, noting she had “rejected” in her 2000 Senate race the support of a group with anti-Semitic views.
Obama drew laughter by saying, “I happily concede the point and I would reject and denounce.”
The exchanges were sharper than their one-on-one debate a week ago in Texas, but not as sharp as their combative debate confrontation just before the South Carolina primary.
Both Democrats planned campaign events in Ohio on Wednesday, with Clinton ending her day in West Virginia and Obama moving on to Texas.
After the debate, Obama paid a late-night visit to unionized workers at a food distribution plant in nearby Medford Heights, Ohio. He was accompanied by Teamsters union President James P. Hoffa
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.