It’s all on the line

Timothy Magaw

In their first meeting in six weeks, Obama and Clinton turn up the heat as the Pennsylvania primary nears

PHILADELPHIA – Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continued a week of intense attacks at last night’s Democratic debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, but both eventually returned to a tone of civility and agreement.

Debate moderators Charles Gibson, anchor of “ABC’s World News,” and George Stephanopoulos, ABC’s chief Washington correspondent, turned up the heat on Obama for his comments about how small-town voters have become bitter and cling to “guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” to explain frustrations.

Obama admitted he had misspoken and attempted to clear up his statements.

“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,” he said.

Citing her family’s blue-collar background, Clinton disagreed. She said she doesn’t think people cling to guns or religion when Washington ignores them.

“I think that is a fundamental sort of misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad,” Clinton said. “And I similarly don’t think that people cling to their traditions, like hunting and guns, either, when they are frustrated with the government. I just don’t believe that’s how people live their lives.”

Obama, however, took a bite from Clinton’s double-digit lead in Pennsylvania despite his recent statements, according to a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll that placed her with a 5 percent advantage. Twelve percent of likely voters, however, are still undecided on how they’ll cast their ballots Tuesday in the battle for the Keystone State, where 158 delegates are at the stake.

Obama leads in the total delegates with 1,641 to Clinton’s 1,504, according to The Associated Press count. In order to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination, 2,025 delegates are needed.

In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released just before last night’s debate, leaning Democrats tend to think Obama is more electable than Clinton by a 2-1 margin, contradicting what Clinton has touted as one of her strengths. A large number of voters, 58 percent, also say Clinton isn’t trustworthy.

Much of the criticism geared at Clinton has been over her statements she withstood sniper fire during a visit to Bosnia during her husband’s presidency.

“I’m embarrassed by it,” Clinton said. “I have apologized for it. I’ve said it was a mistake. And it is, I hope, something that you can look over because, clearly, I am proud that I went to Bosnia. It was a war zone.”

With attacks on Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Clinton’s misstatements about her trip to Bosnia, Obama said it all comes down to politics.

“So the problem that we have in our politics, which is fairly typical, is that you take one person’s statement, if it’s not properly phrased, and you just beat it to death,” he said. “And that’s what Senator Clinton’s been doing over the last four days, and I understand that. That’s politics, and I expect to have to go through this process.”

Despite the attacks over recent statements, the candidates came together over the need to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Clinton said she has made it clear that it is in the best interest of the country, the military and Iraq that the United States starts to withdraw troops within 60 days of her taking the presidency.

“I will make it very clear that we will do so in a responsible and careful manner because, obviously, withdrawing troops and equipment is dangerous,” she said. “I will also make it clear to the Iraqis that they no longer have a blank check from the president of the United States.”

Obama agreed that despite what the military commanders said, he would begin troop withdrawal. His campaign has stated the United States would be out of Iraq within 16 months.

“The president sets the mission,” he said. “The general and our troops carry out that mission. And, unfortunately, we have had a bad mission set by our civilian leadership, which our military has performed brilliantly. But it is time for us to set a strategy that is going to make the American people safe.”

Clinton and Obama both agreed to support each other despite whoever takes the nomination because there is a pressing need for a Democrat in the White House.

“I wish the Republicans would apologize for the disaster of the Bush-Cheney years and not run anybody, just say that it’s time for the Democrats to go back into the White House,” she said.

Contact public affairs reporter Timothy Magaw at [email protected].