- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

CLEVELAND — Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Barack Obama today said he didn’t expect a fiery debate tonight with rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I’m sure it will be conducted in a civil fashion,” the Illinois senator said. “I would expect [Mrs. Clinton] to argue vigorously her case for why she should be president and I’m sure she’ll point out differences she had with me.”

It is the 20th time the two will face off and perhaps the last time this campaign season.

The debate presents Mrs. Clinton of New York one of her last chances to trip up Mr. Obama’s meteoric rise before March 4 contests in Texas and Ohio, which could make or break the Clinton campaign after losing 11 consecutive state primaries.

Clinton campaign officials declined to divulge debate strategy, but Mrs. Clinton is expected to take sharp aim at her opponent tonight.

Mr. Obama, who admits stumbling in his answers at earlier debates, said he was confident he had fine tuned his debate style for “brevity and succinctness.”

The high stakes were evident in recent days as the campaigns traded accusations of dirty politics and other harsh barbs, including Mrs. Clinton’s charge her foe plagiarized in a speech and the Obama campaign’s finger-pointing over a photograph that surfaced yesterday of him wearing a turban and Muslim-style robes.

The pair also clashed over their past comments praising the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a deal ratified under President Bill Clinton blamed for Ohio job loses and which both candidates say they now oppose.

Earlier today, Mr. Obama attempted to deflate the photo flap by calling it a staff level “dust up.”

“Certainly I don’t think that photo was circulated to enhance my candidacy, that’s fair to say,” he said. “Do I think it was reflective of Senator Clinton’s approach to the campaign? Probably not.”

He acknowledged the race is “a little hotter.” But he urged both campaigns to remember that “we’re both trying out for quarterback but we’re on the same team.”

Polls show him slowly eroding Mrs. Clinton’s lead in the blue-collar battleground state of Ohio and overtaking her once formidable lead in the Lone Star state.

A Rasmussen Reports poll yesterday showed Mrs. Clinton ahead 48-43, a drop from her 8-point lead last week.

In Texas, Mr. Obama yesterday took a 49-45 lead after trailing Mrs. Clinton a week earlier 50-45, according to Survey USA.

National polls this week showed Mr. Obama pulling ahead of Mrs. Clinton for the first time among likely Democratic voters: 51-39 in a USA Today/Gallup poll and 46-43 in an Associated Press/Ipsos survey.

Mr. Obama today also picked up the endorsement of Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, the first 2008 Democratic presidential candidate to back a former rival for the nomination.

Mr. Dodd, who ended his run after getting trounced in the Iowa caucus, once criticized Mr. Obama’s inexperience and reliance on “soaring rhetoric” rather than detailed plans for such critical issues as the Iraq war.

But Mr. Dodd assured voters he is now convinced Mr. Obama is “ready to be president.” He made a plea to avoid party infighting that could damage the eventual nominee, but he stopped short of calling on Mrs. Clinton to step aside.

“This is the moment for Democrats and independents and others to come together to get behind this candidacy,” he said.

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