MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (Reuters) - Democratic White House contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton clashed angrily in a South Carolina debate on Monday, accusing each other of shading the truth and drawing a rebuke from rival John Edwards for “squabbling.”
With tensions rising in the Democratic battle for the presidential nomination, Obama and Clinton exchanged harsh words several times, cutting each other off and talking over each other in the most heated debate of a heavily contested campaign.
Obama questioned Clinton’s truthfulness when she attacked his recent campaign-trail statements on Iraq, former Republican President Ronald Reagan’s ideas and spending.
“One of the things that’s happened during the course of this campaign, there’s a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate,” said Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black U.S. president.
Clinton, a New York senator who would be the first U.S. woman president, said it was hard to debate Obama.
“It is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you because you never take responsibility for any vote,” she told Obama.
“It is sometimes difficult to understand what Senator Obama has said, because as soon as he is confronted on it, he says that’s not what he meant,” she said.
Clinton and Obama are dueling for the Democratic nomination in the November election to succeed President George W. Bush. Obama won Iowa, and Clinton has won the last two contests in New Hampshire and Nevada.
Edwards, who won South Carolina during his failed 2000 presidential bid, finished a distant third in the last two contests but says he will push on in the race.
“This kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get health care,” Edwards asked in the three-way debate in a Myrtle Beach theater shown on CNN.
The debate came five days before the critical South Carolina Democratic primary. Obama holds a slim lead in polls in the state, where more than half of the likely voters on Saturday will be black.
In an ABC interview that aired earlier in the day, Obama criticized Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, for making untrue attacks on his record. He said the criticism was “troubling,” but he was ready to fight back.
The Clintons have questioned Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq war and his comments that Republican Reagan transformed politics by tapping into Democratic discontent, which they said was praise for a former president who still angers many Democrats.
When Obama mentioned one of those attacks by Clinton’s husband, she said: “Well, I’m here, he’s not.”
“Well, I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” Obama said.
He also noted that he worked in communities helping people hurt by economic changes under Reagan’s presidency while Clinton was “a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.”
When Clinton said “I didn’t talk about Reagan,” Obama responded: “Hillary, we just had the tape. You said that I complimented the Republican ideas. That is not true.”
The Democrats did find some things to agree on. They said Bush’s proposed $145 billion economic stimulus plan was inadequate to combat a potential U.S. recession.
“The president’s proposed stimulus package is not adequate,” said Clinton, who has proposed her own $110 billion plan. “It is too little, too late and it doesn’t give enough money to the people who are hardest hit by the increased costs of energy and everything else.”
(Editing by Philip Barbara)
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