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Clinton, Obama go for the jugulars (each other's)

January 21, 2008 |  7:19 pm

What a difference a week (or, more precisely, just six days) can make.

When the Democratic presidential candidates gathered last Tuesday in Las Vegas for a debate after several days of racially tinged bickering between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and their surrogates, the two candidates decided to take a step back and cool the tensions.

Tonight in South Carolina, with potentially make-or-break contests in the party's presidential race looming, the gloves came off quickly, with Clinton and Obama engaging in their most heated one-on-one exchanges to date.

Obama came out swinging first, using a fairly routine question -- about Clinton's charges that he hasn't spelled out how he would pay for programs he has proposed -- as a springboard to vent over what he considers a range of unfair criticism directed at him of late by her and her husband, Bill Clinton.

Hillary Clinton would have none of it, and she took after Obama on a variety of topics. Obama, in turn, attacked her and before the back-and-forth was over, each had turned over rocks they had avoided before.

Obama took a shot at Clinton for working as "a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart" while he was ...

a community organizer in Chicago.

Clinton responded sharply, elaborating on her criticism that Obama recently had praised Republicans for having been willing during the 1990s to put forth innovative ideas -- a claim Obama insists is a gross distortion of the point he was making. Clinton than added this zinger: "I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, [Tony] Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago."

(The Chicago Sun-Times wrote last spring about Obama's embarrassing link to Rezko.)

All this dirty laundry was aired before the debate had passed the 30-minute mark.

Later, as she dissected Obama's legislation record, she seemed almost like a teacher scolding a wayward student when she said: "It is very difficult to have a staright-up debate with you because you never take responsibility for your votes."

The third candidate on the stage, John Edwards (increasingly an afterthought in the contest), sought to provide some perspective, saying, "This kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get healthcare?"

Many Democratic leaders might have been left wondering how many independent voters this kind of squabbling -- the mention of Wal-Mart, the reference to Rezko -- might drive away from the eventual nominee later this year.

-- Don Frederick

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