The three major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination met Monday in a debate televised by the Cable News Network and co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. The event, which took place in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, featured an exchange of sharp barbs between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama - both of whom are in a tight race for first place in that state's January 26 primary. VOA's Houston correspondent, Greg Flakus, has more on the story.
The two-hour debate got off to a quick start, with fireworks between the two leading candidates over remarks Senator Obama made in an interview in Reno, which Senator Clinton said were favorable to Republicans.
Clinton: "In an editorial board with the Reno newspaper, you said two different things, because I have read the transcript, you talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative figure. I did not mention his name."
Obama: "Your husband did."
Clinton: "Well, I am here, he is not."
Obama: "It is hard to tell who I am running against sometimes."
Senator Obama said he had referred to former President Ronald Reagan as a transformative figure in American politics and denied he had praised him or Republican ideas. He also objected to what he called misrepresentation of his position on the Iraq war by Senator Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton. The two also clashed over other matters, including their former work experiences. At one point, Obama said he was working with poor people on the streets in Chicago while Clinton was a lawyer sitting on the corporate board of Wal-mart. Clinton accused Obama of having worked for a Chicago slum lord.
The third participant in the debate, Senator Edwards, chastised both of his opponents for their rhetoric. "This kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get health care? How many people are going to get an education? How many kids are going to go to college because of this?"
In the second half of the debate, the three candidates sat next to each other in a more informal discussion. They talked about such issues as the economy, health care and the war in Iraq. Both Clinton and Edwards said they would remove U.S. troops from Iraq soon after taking office. Obama said he would "be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in."
The debate took place on a national holiday, Martin Luther King Day, and the last question for all three was why the great civil rights leader would back them, if he were alive today. Edwards emphasized his southern upbringing and his support for civil rights. Obama said he did not think King would endorse anyone, but he said change starts from the grassroots and that he would support that kind of change. Clinton said the country is strongest when political leaders emphasize the values the civil rights movement represented. Nearly half of South Carolina's voters are black and public opinion polls indicate Obama, who is black, in the lead there. However, Clinton also has strong appeal to many black voters and to women, in particular.
The South Carolina Democratic primary this coming Saturday will be followed very quickly by the Florida primary on January 29 and the so-called Super Tuesday, February 5, in which 22 states will hold primaries and caucuses.