Edwards rebukes Clinton in Democratic debate

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Democrat Hillary Clinton, attempting to slow Barack Obama’s surging campaign, went on the attack on Saturday and drew a sharp rebuke from John Edwards for defending the status quo.

Democratic presidential candidates former U.S. Senator John Edwards (D-NC) (L) and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) stand during a commercial break during their Democratic candidates debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire January 5, 2008. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

In a combative debate three days before a too-close-to-call New Hampshire primary, Clinton questioned Obama’s health-care plan and cast doubt on his ability to deliver on his calls for change in Washington.

Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, upbraided the New York senator for criticizing Obama and noted her third-place finish in Iowa on Thursday, when Obama captured the first big prize of the presidential campaign and Edwards finished second.

“I didn’t hear these kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead,” Edwards said. “Every time he speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack -- every single time.”

New Hampshire is the next battleground in the state-by-state fight to pick a successor to President George W Bush, and Clinton, seeking to become the first female president, faces a potential do-or-die struggle to revitalize her struggling campaign.

Polls show Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black president, pulling into a deadlock with Clinton for the lead in New Hampshire after rolling to the win in Iowa on a wave of grass-roots enthusiasm for his outsider’s message of change in Washington.

Clinton, the one-time front-runner, would face severe questions about the viability of her campaign with a second consecutive loss in the Democratic race.

Edwards has been running third in New Hampshire polls, with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson running fourth. Richardson tried to intervene in the three-way debate squabble among the top contenders.

“I’ve been in hostage negotiations that are a lot more civil than this,” quipped Richardson.

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Clinton criticized Obama for shifting in recent years from supporting a single-payer, government-run health-care plan to one that does not mandate insurance coverage for all Americans.

“He could have a pretty good debate with himself,” she said. “What we need is a president we can count on.”

Edwards said it was fine to have a disagreement on health care, but saying Obama was having a discussion with himself was “not the kind of discussion we should be having.”

Obama said his health-care plan concentrated on keeping down costs and mandated coverage for children because they could not make a choice on whether to have insurance.

“That’s a perfectly legitimate policy difference for us to have, and that is different from saying that I will refuse to cover or leave out a bunch of individuals,” he told Clinton.

Clinton, speaking forcefully after the attack from Edwards, insisted she also was an advocate for the type of change pushed by Obama.

“I want to make change but I’ve already made change,” she said. “I’m not just running on a promise of change -- I’m running on 35 years of change.”

The Democratic presidential contenders followed a Republican debate on Saturday night in New Hampshire as polls showed tight races on both sides before the state’s primary on Tuesday.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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