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He also criticized both his rivals for voting for a trade deal with Peru, while Mr. Obama reminded him that he had voted for permanent trade relations with China.

Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards reprised criticism of the 129 “present” votes Mr. Obama cast while serving eight years in the Illinois Senate.

“That’s not yes, that’s not no, that’s maybe,” Mrs. Clinton said. “It is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.”

But Mr. Obama defended himself, saying the Clinton campaign has made an effort to “comb my 4,000 votes in Illinois, choose one [and] try to present it in the worst possible light.”

Mr. Obama said most of the “present” votes were a tactic to work through “technical problems” with bills that ultimately were changed or passed, and the campaign sent news articles to back up his point.

Mr. Edwards accused Mr. Obama of combing through records as well.

“What you’re criticizing her for, by the way, you’ve done to us, which is you pick this vote and that vote out of the hundreds that we’ve cast,” Mr. Edwards said. “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.”

Mr. Obama said Mrs. Clinton was misrepresenting a comment he made about Ronald Reagan being a transformative politician and how Republicans have been “the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time.” He said he “spent a lifetime” fighting Reagan administration policies and added a new charge against Mrs. Clinton.

“While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart,” he said.

Mr. Obama also said former President Bill Clinton had been deceiving voters and misquoting him on the campaign trail.

“I’m here, he’s not,” Mrs. Clinton said, prompting Mr. Obama to quip: “I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes.”

Mrs. Clinton said last night her husband is a “tremendous asset” and insisted the campaign “is not about our spouses it is about each of us individually.”

“The most important decision is who would be the best president,” she said.

The debate, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, was held on Martin Luther King Day at the Palace Theater in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in advance of the state’s primary election Saturday.