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Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate in Texas

Democratic Party presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in a debate Thursday in Texas. VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston there was more agreement on issues than clashes over differences.

The debate, on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, was marked more by broad agreement on policy issues from immigration to health care; from the war in Iraq to this week's resignation by Cuban president Fidel Castro. But there were a few contentious moments. One came when Senator Obama was asked about charges that he had stolen phrases from a speech by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, using them in his own speeches without attribution.

"The notion that I had plagiarized from someone who is one of my national co-chairs, who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think is silly," he said.

Senator Clinton followed up by saying that if a candidate bases his campaign on words, they should be his own.

"There is no doubt that you are a passionate, eloquent speaker and I applaud you for that, but when you look at what we face in this country. We do need to unite the country, but we have to unite it for a purpose around very specific goals," she said.

In the sharpest attack in the debate, Clinton said that Obama's message was not "change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox" -- a reference to a well-known photo copy machine. The line fell flat, however, and drew boos from the audience.

In another exchange, the two candidates sparred over who would be the most ready to assume the position of commander in chief.

Clinton emphasized her experience over the past seven years in the senate and cited an Obama supporter who had trouble coming up with a single accomplishment by the Illinois senator.

Obama said he believed he was ready to take on the responsibilities of the presidency and he noted that every major newspaper in Texas has endorsed him. In response to a question on how he would confront the probable Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, a decorated war veteran, Obama noted that McCain had supported the war in Iraq, while he, Obama, had opposed it.

"It is going to be much easier for the candidate who was opposed to the concept of invading Iraq in the first place to have a debate about the wisdom of that decision than to have to argue about the tactics used subsequent to that decision," he said.

Asked about her criticism of the U.S. military surge in Iraq, Clinton said achieving progress by adding more U.S. troops is not the result the United States should be seeking.

"Upon taking office, I would ask the Secretary of Defense and the Joints Chief of Staff and my security advisors to give me a plan so that I could begin withdrawing our troops within 60 days," she said.

One of the best moments for both candidates came at the end when they were asked to describe a crisis they had faced. Obama spoke of being raised by a single mother and overcoming challenges as a youth. Clinton said the crises she has faced are well known, but that these were nothing compared to the difficulties faced by soldiers who have been maimed in combat overseas and the problems faced by workers, homeowners and people in need of health insurance.

Clinton once held a large lead here in Texas and in Ohio, the other large state which holds its primary on March 4, but Obama has won the last 19 contests in a row and has now pulled even with her in the polls. Analysts agree that Clinton needs wins in both states in order to remain viable, whereas Obama only needs to maintain his momentum to stay in the lead.