Ohio hosts final debate

Steven Bushong

CHECK OUT photos of the Democratic debate.

CLEVELAND – Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton forcefully aired their differences last night at the MSNBC Democratic debate. The meeting of political foes occurred as attacks from both camps intensified and a national poll showing Americans would prefer that Obama get the nomination was released.

Clinton immediately launched into a rebuttal of campaign literature that was recently mailed to Ohioans from the Obama campaign. She said the mailings contain inaccurate information about her health care plan.

“It’s been unfortunate that Senator Obama has consistently said that I would force people to have health care whether they could afford it or not,” she said.

Obama responded by arguing the validity of his flier and by saying that Clinton possesses a good health care plan. He added that he has endured similarly inaccurate mailings and claims that his plan for health care would leave people uncovered.

“With respect to the young people, my plan specifically says that, up until the age of 25, you will be able to be covered under your parents’ insurance plan,” Obama said. “So that cohort that Senator Clinton is talking about will, in fact, have coverage.”

The debate over health care continued until co-moderator Brian Williams, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” brought it to a close, despite objections.

“Well, a 16-minute discussion on health care is certainly a start,” Williams said. The discussion then turned to the North American Free Trade Agreement, also a knotty topic.

The debate, held at Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center, involved more than 500 of its own students, a fifth of whom sat among the 1,600 people who watched the debate live. The others parked vehicles, assisted VIPs and directed hundreds of media personnel.

Obama and Clinton sat at a table with co-moderators Williams and Tim Russert, a 1975 graduate of Cleveland State’s law school and managing editor and moderator of “Meet the Press.” The two traded questions during the debate, which came a week before the March 4 Ohio primary.

On the topic of NAFTA, Clinton said Obama’s accusations are inaccurate.

“I have received a lot of incoming criticism from Senator Obama. And the Cleveland Plain Dealer examined Sen. Obama’s attacks on me regarding NAFTA and said they were erroneous.” Clinton said. “So I would hope that, again, we could get to a debate about what the real issues are and where we stand.”

Russert asked both candidates if they would pull out of the agreement. Both said they would re-negotiate.

“I think actually Sen. Clinton’s answer on this one is right,” Obama said. “I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced.”

The debate soon took a turn toward Iraq and whether the candidates would pull out of the country.

“Well, if the Iraqi government says that we should not be there, then we cannot be there,” Obama responded. “This is a sovereign government, as George Bush continually reminds us.”

He said he would call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and initiate a phased pullout. Clinton’s response was similar.

“I believe there is no military solution that the Americans, who had been valiant in doing everything that they were asked to do, can really achieve in the absence of full cooperation from the Iraqi government,” she said. “And they need to take responsibility for themselves.”

Williams then asked Obama about Clinton portraying herself as “co-president.”

“What I’ve said – and what I would continue to maintain – is you can’t take credit for all the good things that happen but then, when it comes to issues like NAFTA, you say, ‘Well, behind the scenes, I was disagreeing,'” Obama said. “That doesn’t work.”

At about $300,000, the cost for the debate to the university was set off by corporate and private donors, said Brian Johnston, Cleveland State director of marketing and public affairs.

He said the debate’s location at Cleveland State will be a morale boost to students and will have a positive impact on the entire region.

” … it’s not only the limelight on Cleveland State, it’s the limelight on Cleveland, it’s the limelight on Northeast Ohio,” he said. “In one of the most hotly contested Democratic races in years, Ohio will be pivotal in deciding who will get the nod in the party.”

Classes were canceled yesterday and security agencies blanketed the center and surrounding area. The Cleveland Police bomb squad was posted on a nearby street.

Obama has won a total 1,370 delegates to Clinton’s 1,274, according to The Associated Press. Obama has won the last 11 contests. Currently, Clinton is leading Ohio in the polls, but her lead is narrowing.

The debate – the twentieth of this primary season – was significant for the candidates, as both campaigns have declared Ohio a must-win state.

Contact city editor Steven Bushong at [email protected].