Sen. Barack Obama took his most aggressive tone yet last night, accusing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in a South Carolina debate of dishonestly twisting his statements and record.
The two Democratic presidential candidates locked in a race for enough delegates to win the party nomination stood within arms' distance confronting each other on issues that before last night had mostly been fought by their campaign staff behind the scenes.
It was a stark contrast from last week's debate in Las Vegas where the candidates were cordial as they sat around a table.
At times last night, they were shouting over one another, with moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN attempting to bring the debate back under his control.
"We're just getting warmed up," said Mrs. Clinton, of New York.
Mr. Obama, of Illinois, defended himself against charges that he praised Republicans as having better ideas than Democrats, saying Mrs. Clinton was cherry-picking facts to put him in a negative light.
"What she said wasn't true," Mr. Obama insisted after she said he hadn't accounted for how he would pay for some of his programs, including foreign aid.
"This is one of the things that's happened during the course of this campaign, that there's a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate," he 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."
Mrs. Clinton, who shook her head several times as Mr. Obama spoke, argued that he takes politically convenient positions on different days.
"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," she said.
The former first lady also evoked articles that have been critical of Mr. Obama's service in the Illinois state Senate.
"If we're going to be hurling these charges against one another, I'm used to taking the incoming fire, I've taken it for 16 years," she said. "But when you get into this arena, you can't expect to have a hands-off attitude about your record. And it is perfectly fair to have comparisons and contrasts."
Meanwhile, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was forced to remind Mr. Blitzer that "there is a third person in this debate" as the other two bickered.
"I also want to know on behalf of voters here in South Carolina, this kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get health care?" he asked. "We have got to understand this is not about us personally, it is about what we are trying to do in this country and what we believe in."
Also unlike previous debates where Mrs. Clinton was the target, Mr. Edwards took a sharp tone against Mr. Obama. He jumped into the Clinton-Obama tussle several times, and at one point was incredulous about an answer Mr. Obama gave during an exchange about a 2005 bankruptcy bill.
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.