- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

AUSTIN, Texas — Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed their agreements in a debate last night where he assumed a front-runner’s mantle for the first time, but he said he can better deliver on the two candidates’ similar promises.

The Illinois senator introduced a new rebuttal to Mrs. Clinton’s charge that he has no record to run on and offers little besides inspiration, saying it is as if she thinks his supporters are “delusional.”

Mrs. Clinton declined to say her rival is not ready to be president and would only repeat that she thinks she is ready on Day One. After 45 minutes of civil discourse and niceties, the moderators of the CNN/Univision debate pushed the candidates to take each other on in the same manner they’ve been trading jabs on the campaign trail.

Mr. Obama said her request to “get real” and consider the real choice in the presidential contest carries with it the “implication people voting for me are somehow delusional … that somehow they are being duped and eventually they are going to see the reality of things.”

“I think they perceive the reality of what’s going on in Washington,” he said, and know if politicians don’t “actually focus on solutions then we will not get anything done.”

He said he is able to inspire people to get involved in government that will lead to changing Washington, a theme he pushed throughout the evening.

The New York senator said she was “amused” when Mr. Obama’s supporter was caught in an MSNBC interview unable to name any Obama accomplishments.

In response, Mr. Obama ticked off his record in the Illinois state Senate and what he’s done since he became a U.S. senator in January 2005, noting he has brought transparency to government with a searchable database of federal contracts and that he passed lobbying and ethics reform.

The moderators also asked about the dust-up over a recent Obama speech, which included key passages that had been used nearly verbatim in October 2006 by his friend Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Mrs. Clinton mocked him for it, repeating her campaign line, the “simple proposition”: “If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words.”

Mr. Obama called the situation — which surfaced Sunday and continued as the Clinton campaign e-mailed clips of Mr. Obama using similar language to former Sen. John Edwards — part of the “silly season in politics.”

“The notion that I had plagiarized from somebody who was one of my national co-chairs who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think, is silly,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton unleashed a new line, riffing on Mr. Obama’s “Change You Can Believe In” campaign theme.

“Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox,” she said, drawing murmurs and boos from the crowd.

But Mrs. Clinton pressed on.

“Now, there’s no doubt that you are a passionate and eloquent speaker and I applaud you for that. But when you look at what we face in this country, we do need to unite the country, but we have to unite it for a purpose around very specific goals. It is not enough to say ‘let’s come together,’ ” she said.

Later, she rebounded in what her campaign and numerous media commenters identified as a game-changing moment of connecting with voters.

“I think everybody here knows I’ve lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life,” she said without specifying what she meant, but drawing a warm response from the audience. “I am grateful for the support and the prayers of countless Americans.”

She continued by saying that when she is asked on the campaign trail how she soldiers through the race’s rigors, “I just have to shake my head in wonderment, because with all of the challenges that I’ve had, they are nothing compared to what I see happening in the lives of Americans every single day.”

She added in closing: “Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we’ll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that’s what this election should be about.”

That message smacked of the close former Sen. John Edwards used in more than one debate: “The truth is, when this election is over, I’m going to be fine. Senator Clinton is going to be fine. Senator Obama’s going to be fine. The question is: Will America be fine?”

The debate began with a discussion of foreign affairs, including the resignation of ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The moderators asked whether either candidate would sit down with new leader Raul Castro, a riff off a July debate question in which they disagreed on whether to meet U.S. adversaries without preconditions.

“I would not meet with him until there was evidence that change was happening,” Mrs. Clinton said. “A presidential visit should not be offered and given without some evidence that it will demonstrate the kind of progress that is in our interest, and in this case, in the interests of the Cuban people.”

Mr. Obama confirmed he would meet Raul Castro “without preconditions” but added there “has to be preparation” such as opening up the press and releasing prisoners.

“I do think it’s important for the United States not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton fired back that such a presidential visit should not be offered immediately “because it undermines the capacity for us to actually take the measure of somebody like Raul Castro or [Iran’s Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and others.”

Disagreeing, Mr. Obama said viewing such a visit as a “privilege that has to be earned” only reinforces the international opinion the country is arrogant.

“It’s important for us in undoing the damage that has been done over the last seven years, for the president to be willing to take that extra step,” he said.

All night long, Mr. Obama stressed their policy similarities but said only he can unite the country to build the “coalition” needed to make change in Washington.

Mrs. Clinton used her opening remarks to stay positive, praising the late Ann Richards, who once served as Texas governor, for her “determination.”

She also stressed her own credentials and reminded voters her first political job was 36 years ago registering voters in south Texas.

“I offer a lifetime of experience and proven results,” she said.

On immigration, the Democrats agreed that they agree. Both support “comprehensive” immigration reform and voted as senators for pathways to citizenship for illegal aliens. They want to keep families together and tone down anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Mrs. Clinton was critical of the U.S.-Mexico border fence she voted for in 2006, saying she hadn’t intended to vote for specific locations for a fence but was only “voting for the possibility that where it was appropriate and made sense it would be considered.”

But, the Secure Fence Act she and Mr. Obama both voted for was quite specific — right down to specifying the exact 698 miles of the border where a two-tier fence would go.

It was the nineteenth debate setting for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, but as she pointed out several times before the Wisconsin primary, during the long campaign season they had only been alone on stage together once before tonight.

Polls show Mr. Obama leading or tied with Mrs. Clinton nationally and in several of the next states. She holds a solid lead in Pennsylvania, which votes April 22 and a narrow one both here in Texas and in Ohio, where Mr. Obama will campaign this weekend.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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