- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — Sen. Barack Obama was treated like the Democratic front-runner for the first time in a debate last night — fielding hard questions about his ties to a 1970s domestic terrorist, his racially divisive church and his electability.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton charged her rival has failed to fully explain his longtime ties to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., calling it deplorable that Mr. Obama didn’t leave the church after his pastor made disparaging remarks about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“There were so many different variations on the explanations that we heard,” said Mrs. Clinton, adding that as a New York senator, she was personally offended by Mr. Wright”s saying the attacks were “America”s chickens coming home to roost.”

“I have to say that … for Pastor Wright to have given his first sermon after 9/11 and to have blamed the United States for the attack, which happened in my city of New York, would have been just intolerable for me,” Mrs. Clinton said. “And, therefore, I would have not been able to stay in the church.”

The Democrats faced off for a debate at the National Constitution Center with less than a week remaining before the critical Pennsylvania primary. Mr. Obama was treated as the front-runner he has become by winning more state primaries and caucuses. He was hammered by the ABC News debate moderators and by Mrs. Clinton for his misstatements and personal associations and was peppered with questions about his positions.

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    Mr. Obama also deflected several critical Clinton statements — with her questioning his strength in a general election owing to his associations with Mr. Wright and others — by saying that running against her has made him tougher for a fall contest.

    “There is no doubt that the Republicans will attack either of us,” he said. “What I’ve been able to display during the course of this primary is that I can take a punch. I’ve taken some pretty good ones from Senator Clinton.”

    Mrs. Clinton said she had no doubt that “a lot of good things were happening at that church,” but noted Mr. Wright’s rants and the church’s ties to radical ideology, including support for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and giving space in the church bulletin for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

    “You don’t choose your family, but you get to choose your pastor,” she said.

    Mr. Obama, of Illinois, said the snippets of Mr. Wright’s sermons widely viewed on YouTube.com do not represent the totality of the good works performed by the pastor and his church.

    He also was asked about an organizing meeting for his state Senate campaign held at the home of William Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground, which bombed numerous buildings in the 1970s, including the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon.

    “Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?” asked ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who worked in the Clinton White House.

    Mr. Obama said he has not been endorsed by Mr. Ayers, his neighbor in Chicago, and doesn’t solicit his campaign advice.

    Mrs. Clinton chimed in that Mr. Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers even after he was quoted in the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2001, as saying he did not regret setting the 1970s bombs, ill-timed comments she said “were deeply hurtful to people in New York.”

    “What they did was set bombs,” she said of the Weather Underground. “And in some instances, people died. … I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising.”

    Mrs. Clinton repeated her claim of being better tested against Republicans, getting a laugh for saying: “I have a lot of baggage, and everybody has rummaged through it for years.”

    But Mr. Obama hit back, reminding voters that President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two Weathermen. He also said that people should not have to answer for the views of friends, noting that he is friends with and has worked with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, but sees no need to apologize for Mr. Coburn’s pro-life stance on abortion.

    Mr. Obama repeatedly said last night that questions about the Wright dust-up and the continued furor over his classification of some rural voters as “bitter” in clinging to guns and religion are not issues and just serve as a “distraction.”

    He adopted a refrain that his campaign has tried to move past such issues to help Americans. But he also denied making an issue out of Mrs. Clinton’s exaggeration over her trip to Bosnia as first lady, incorrectly saying his campaign had only responded to it when asked.

    Mr. Obama repeated last night that he has disavowed Mr. Wright’s comments and was not in church when the offensive sermons were delivered. But Mrs. Clinton said her opponent’s relationship with Trinity United Church of Christ “deserves further exploration.”

    “These are problems, and they raise questions in people’s minds,” she said.

    ABC’s moderators asked Mrs. Clinton about being caught last month telling a greatly embellished story about a visit to Bosnia as first lady in 1996, during which she said falsely that she had to dodge sniper fire at the airport.

    Mrs. Clinton explained last night that she was “embarrassed” and had “said it was a mistake.” She noted that she wrote extensively about the Bosnia trip in her 2004 book, “Living History.”

    “I may be a lot of things, but I’m not dumb,” she said, adding: “I laid it all out there” in her book.

    Mr. Obama said he understood how his “bitter” remark could offend people, but he said the comment had been misconstrued by the Clinton campaign and exploited for political gain.

    “The point I was making was that when people feel like Washington’s not listening to them — when they’re promised year after year, decade after decade — that their economic situation is going to change and it doesn’t, then, politically, they end up focusing on those things that are constant like religion,” Mr. Obama said.

    “They end up feeling this is a place where I can find some refuge,” he said. “They end up being much more concerned about votes around things like guns, where traditions have been passed on from generation to generation … . What is also true is that wedge issues, hot-button issues, end up taking prominence in our politics.

    “And part of the problem is that when those issues are exploited, we never get to solve the issues that people really have to get some relief on, whether it’s health care or education or jobs,” he said.

    Mrs. Clinton, reminding voters of her history in the state and that her grandfather was a factory worker from Scranton, Pa., said Mr. Obama’s remarks showed “a fundamental sort of misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad.”

    “I don’t believe that my grandfather or my father [or current Pennsylvanians] … cling to religion when Washington is not listening to them,” she said.

    Mr. Obama said by calling him “elitist” for his “bitter” statement, Mrs. Clinton is furthering a distraction that won’t help everyday Americans.

    He offered a defense of Mrs. Clinton’s famed remark when her husband was running for president in the early 1990s that she would not stay home and bake cookies, a comment that earned her ridicule for years.

    “I remember watching that on TV and saying, well, that’s not who she is. That’s not what she believes. That’s not what she meant,” Mr. Obama said.

    “The problem is that that’s the kind of politics that we’ve been accustomed to,” he said. “And I think Senator Clinton learned the wrong lesson from it because she’s adopting the same tactics.”

    Rep. Patrick J. Murphy of Pennsylvania, an Obama national co-chairman, said his candidate “didn’t fall for” Mrs. Clinton’s negative politics.

    “He cut through the distractions and really elevated the debate to a higher level,” he said.

    But Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said Mr. Obama was “on his heels” in the debate not from his boss’ attacks, but from tough questions from ABC.

    “They are, I imagine, similar to questions he will face if he is the nominee,” Mr. Wolfson said. “They were on parts of his record that obviously he would rather not discuss because he certainly did not discuss them well.”

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