- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Presidential hopefuls Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton barnstormed the state yesterday in a final plea for votes before tomorrow’s crucial primary, as the campaigns saturate the airwaves with attack ads and accuse each other of deploying misleading messages.

Mr. Obama of Illinois and Mrs. Clinton of New York are trading barbs on television and in stump speeches.

Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Obama’s campaign went negative after his poor debate performance on Wednesday, despite his pledge not to stoop to Washington-style politics of “distraction.”

“While my opponent says one thing, and his campaign does another, you can count on me to tell you where I stand,” she told about 1,000 supporters at a rally in the gymnasium of Liberty High School in Bethlehem.

“He has sent out mailers; he has run ads misrepresenting what I am proposing,” Mrs. Clinton said of the Obama campaign’s attacks on her health care plan. “The last thing we need is someone spending as much money as he has to help degrade universal health care.”

The candidates regularly have tussled over their health care plans, but the dispute reached new heights in Pennsylvania this weekend with an Obama TV ad that said Mrs. Clinton’s proposal “forces everyone to buy insurance even if you can’t afford it, and you pay a penalty if you don’t.”

“My plan covers everybody,” Mrs. Clinton said. “His plan doesn’t. It would leave out about 15 million people.”

The Obama ads call Mrs. Clinton’s words the “same old” attacks and he told voters: “There will not be a single person in America who wants health insurance who cannot get health insurance when I’m president.”

During his campaign blitz this weekend, Mr. Obama said voters should not “settle” for Mrs. Clinton because she is accustomed to the intricacies of Washington.

In Harrisburg on Saturday night, he said the Clinton campaign is throwing the “kitchen sink” at him along with the “china” and the “buffet table.”

“Senator Clinton will be vastly better than George Bush would be, but that’s a very low bar,” he said, drawing cheers from a crowd that had booed his rival’s name.

Yesterday, he said Mrs. Clinton would make a better president than the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, but “we can’t just settle for a little bit better.”

“We need something fundamentally different,” he said, adding: “And all three of us would be better than George Bush.”

Mrs. Clinton relayed the remarks to supporters at a rally in Johnstown in western Pennsylvania, saying Mr. McCain would offer what she sees as the same failed policies of the Bush administration on the Iraq war, the economy and energy policy.

“We need a nominee who will take on John McCain, not cheer on John McCain, and I will be that nominee,” she said.

After Mrs. Clinton’s comments, Mr. Obama stepped up his criticism of Mr. McCain at a Scranton rally, saying, “We can’t afford four more years of George Bush.”

At several campaign stops, Mrs. Clinton mocked a campaign ad that says Mr. Obama never takes campaign contributions from oil companies. She said every candidate can make that claim.

“Nobody takes money from oil companies. That’s been illegal for 100 years,” she said in Bethlehem, echoing her TV ad and adding that the real test was when Congress voted on energy legislation crafted by Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

“What you really have to know is that when it came time to stand up and be counted, I voted no. My opponent voted yes. That’s a big difference,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, brings up another vote: the authorization of the war in Iraq in 2002 before he was elected senator. Cheers erupt when he reminds voters that he is the only one of the three major candidates who opposed the war.

He suggests that Mrs. Clinton has become a master at the Washington “game” because she is too cozy with lobbyists.

The candidates nearly crossed paths in Bethlehem, where Clinton supporters lingered after her rally as Mr. Obama greeted voters dining al fresco on Main Street before heading into a pub to sample its brew.

Mrs. Clinton started the day greeting the breakfast crowd at Bonnet Lane Family Restaurant in Abington, a mostly white suburban community about 10 miles north of Philadelphia.

Democrat Bob Hess, 49, a Clinton supporter and restaurant regular, dismissed the increasingly harsh campaign rhetoric, calling it politics as usual.

“I think people are smart enough to look past all that,” he said.

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