- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

CLEVELAND — Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Barack Obama weathered some “glancing blows” as his rival and moderators challenged his experience in last night’s debate, but he emerged relatively unscathed.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had been expected to unload a barrage of attacks on Mr. Obama, and even top Obama advisers conceded that the New York senator landed several blows last night, keeping the new Democratic front-runner on the defensive.

The debate yielded a lengthy discussion about foreign policy.

Mrs. Clinton mispronounced the name of Vladimir Putin’s presumptive successor as Russian president, smiling and saying “whatever” after she had trouble with First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s last name, reminiscent of George W. Bush’s bungling foreign leaders’ names as a candidate in 2000.

Mr. Obama, of Illinois, did not take the opportunity to point out Mr. Medvedev’s first name, but his strategist David Axelrod said he knows the man’s name.

“Having seen Senator Clinton try and fail, I think he didn’t want to try,” Mr. Axelrod said.

Mrs. Clinton noted that her rival talks about Afghanistan but has held “not one substantive hearing to figure out what we can do to actually have a stronger presence with NATO in Afghanistan” in his subcommittee that has jurisdiction over NATO.

Mr. Obama explained that he became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee subpanel on Europe at the beginning of his campaign in 2007.

Responding to Mrs. Clinton’s criticism that despite his 2002 speech against the war, they have shared an identical Iraq voting record since he came to the Senate in 2005, Mr. Obama slammed her as “ready to give in to George Bush on Day One on this critical issue.”

“She facilitated and enabled [Mr. Bush] to make this decision,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton echoed presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, charging that Mr. Obama “basically threatened to bomb Pakistan.”

Mr. Obama rejected her claim, noting his position: “If we have actionable intelligence against [Osama] bin Laden or other key al Qaeda officials … and Pakistan is unwilling or unable to strike against them, we should.”

Some Clinton aides were cheered when moderators went after Mr. Obama for “waffling” on public finance.

“Why won’t you keep your word in writing that you made to abide by public financing” in a general election? asked NBC’s Tim Russert.

Mr. Obama brushed it off, saying only: “If I am the nominee, then I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that is fair for both sides.”

Mr. Russert characterized that rebuttal as: “You may break your word.”

Mr. Axelrod conceded that Mr. Obama took some hits, but he said the damage wouldn’t stick.

“I think there were some glancing blows that were thrown and we go on,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton said that she would work to release her tax returns before the primary season ends and that she would try to expedite further release of her public schedules as first lady.

The debate opened with Mrs. Clinton saying, “I think it’s important you stand up for yourself” to explain her drastic change in tone since Thursday’s debate in which she said she was honored to run for president alongside Mr. Obama.

Moderator Brian Williams opened last night’s debate with a clip of her “honored” moment in contrast to her saying angrily on Saturday, “Shame on you, Barack Obama.”

Mrs. Clinton grinned but quickly went into explanatory mode, saying that the Obama campaign’s fliers and mailers on health care and the North American Free Trade Agreement are “very disturbing for me.”

“It is almost as though the health insurance companies and the Republicans wrote it,” she said, referring to his month-old mailer that characterized her health care plan as “forcing” people to buy insurance.

Mr. Obama said he has endured “repeated” and constant “negative attacks” from Team Clinton.

“We haven’t whined about it because I understand that’s the nature of these campaigns,” he said, defending the mailer as the two squabbled over the differences in their health care plans.

The discussion allowed Mrs. Clinton to showcase an issue that she says is “something I believe in with all my heart” after her failed health care reform efforts from her husband’s administration.

Mrs. Clinton criticized the press as being tougher on her than on Mr. Obama, a theme she and her campaign officials have used lately.

“If anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,’ maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow,” she said, referring to a spoof skit mocking the Thursday CNN debate featuring comedians acting as reporters fawning over Mr. Obama and asking whether he was comfortable. “I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues.”

She also admonished Mr. Williams for trying to steer the debate in another direction after 16 minutes on health care, saying nothing was more important.

But Mr. Russert pressed Mr. Obama on Iraq policy and NAFTA, quoting from an Associated Press story that said the senator had been “ambivalent” about the trade agreement.

Though they have squabbled over NAFTA in Ohio, which has lost 50,000 jobs since it was instituted, the Democrats said that if elected, they would work with Canada and Mexico to renegotiate NAFTA to secure enforceable labor and environmental standards.

Mrs. Clinton went first, and Mr. Obama basically copied her response, saying, “I think Senator Clinton’s answer on this one is right.”

Last night’s debate, sponsored by MSNBC and held at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University, was their 20th since the first meeting in South Carolina in April.

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

Polls show Mr. Obama 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. He also holds a sizable lead in national polls.

Mr. Obama yesterday also picked up the endorsement of Sen. Christopher J. 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 that he now is convinced that 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.

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