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Clinton on Offensive to Stop Obama's Momentum

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participate in a debate at Cleveland State University in Cleveland on Tuesday. Clinton and Obama will face off in the crucial Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4.
J.D. Pooley
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Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participate in a debate at Cleveland State University in Cleveland on Tuesday. Clinton and Obama will face off in the crucial Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4.

In their final meeting before next Tuesday's crucial primaries in Ohio and Texas, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama clashed on health care, trade, Iraq and campaign tactics in a debate sponsored by MSNBC and held at Cleveland State University. The pressure was on Clinton to find a way to stop Obama's momentum.

On the campaign trail last weekend, Clinton said she wanted a debate about Obama's tactics, and Tuesday night she got one.

"What I find regrettable is that in Sen. Obama's mailing that he has sent out across Ohio, it is almost as though the health insurance companies and the Republicans wrote it," she said.

Obama had his own complaints.

"Sen. Clinton has ... constantly sent out negative attacks on us," he said, "and we haven't whined about it because I understand that's the nature of the campaigns.

"But to suggest somehow that our mailing is somehow different from the kinds of approaches that Sen. Clinton has taken throughout this campaign I think is simply not accurate," he said.

After 16 minutes on health care, the debate turned to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is extremely unpopular in Ohio, particularly among the blue-collar voters Clinton is counting on. The first question on NAFTA went to Clinton, who cited a late-night TV comedy skit lampooning journalists who swoon over Obama.

"Could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time? And I don't mind. You know, I'll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious," she said. "And if anybody saw Saturday Night Live, you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow."

There was mixture of boos and applause for that line.

NAFTA was one of the major legislative victories of her husband's administration, but on Tuesday, Clinton claimed she'd been a critic of NAFTA from the beginning. Obama argued that she shouldn't cherry pick the accomplishments of the Clinton years.

"You can't take credit for all the good things that happened but then, when it comes to issues like NAFTA, you say, well, I — behind the scenes, I was disagreeing. That doesn't work," he said. "So you have to, I think, take both responsibility as well as credit."

Both candidates got tough questions. Moderator Tim Russert asked Obama if he would enter the public financing system in the general election as he once had promised; John McCain says he will take public financing and is calling Obama's bluff to do the same.

"If I am the nominee, then I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that is fair for both sides, because Tim, as you know, there are all sorts of ways of getting around these loopholes," he said.

If that was a waffle, so was Clinton's answer to why she wouldn't release her tax returns, something Obama has already done. Russert said since she loaned her campaign $5 million, voters have a right to know where the money came from.

"I will release my tax returns. I have consistently said that," she said. But when asked if she would release them before Tuesday's primaries, she said she was too busy. "I hardly have time to sleep."

Obama was grilled about an endorsement from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has, among other things, called Judaism a gutter religion.

"I obviously can't censor him, but it is not support that I sought," Obama said.

When asked if he rejected that support, Obama responded: "I can't say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy. You know, I — you know, I — I have been very clear in my denunciations of him and his past statements."

But that wasn't good enough for Clinton, who saw an opportunity to press Obama on an issue important to Jewish voters.

"You asked specifically if he would reject it and there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting," she said. "And I think when it comes to this sort of, you know, inflammatory ... I just think we've got to be even stronger."

"Tim, I have to say, I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting," Obama responded. "But if the word 'reject' Sen. Clinton feels is better than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point. And I would reject and denounce."

Obama had the easier task last night; he simply had to reject Clinton's attacks and avoid making mistakes. Clinton, on the other hand, had to find some way to raise doubts about Obama's qualifications to be commander in chief and his ability to defeat McCain in the fall. Tuesday night was one of her last best chances to do that until the two big primaries that even former President Bill Clinton says she has to win in order to stay in the race.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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