Clinton-Obama Spat Hangs Over Political Forum

At the National Urban League convention in St. Louis Friday, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama refrained from directly criticizing the other — after a week of acrimony between the two presidential hopefuls. Still, the spat didn't go unmentioned.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

For much of this week, the two leading Democratic presidential candidates have been hurling barbs. Yesterday though senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each spoke to the National Urban League Convention. And in back-to-back appearances, each refrained from directly criticizing the other.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from St. Louis.

DON GONYEA: The National Urban League does not issue endorsements of specific candidates for elective office, rather it likes to provide a forum for ideas important to urban America. That's what brought four of the Democratic hopefuls to St. Louis yesterday.

The ground rules called for individual speeches. Each got the stage to themselves. Each was given 50 minutes for remarks followed by a brief question-and-answer session.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich was first arguing for cutting off funding for the Iraq war and for new programs to provide health care for all and a free pre-kindergarten program for every child in America.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): When you talk about those things, the first thing you hear in Washington, people will say, how are you going to pay for it. You know, they didn't ask that about the war, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: Next stop was former Senator John Edwards who focused on fighting poverty and improving public schools, but who also unexpectedly weighed in on this week's Clinton-Obama spat.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): We've had two good people, Democratic candidates for president who spent their time attacking each other, instead of attacking the problems that this country is faced.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. EDWARDS: And we - we need to be doing, we need - I got your attention with that one, didn't I?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: Senator Clinton was the next to take the stage. She did not react to Edwards' comment nor did she mention Obama. Instead, she spoke of a strong civil rights agenda.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): You know, this whole question about discrimination now, it's more subtle, isn't it? It's a little more difficult. And there is the kind of reaction against it. So there are a lot of forces in our society who are saying, well, that's yesterday's news. No, it's not.

GONYEA: Senator Clinton kept talking even when her 15 minutes were up. Four more minutes passed when Urban League President Marc Morial rose from his onstage seat to hurry things along.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. CLINTON: A recent study showed that when employers were presented - I'm nearly done, Marc - a recent study show….

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. CLINTON: But, as you know, I'm all fired up about this. You can't stop me now.

GONYEA: Senator Clinton's prepared remarks went on for just over 20 minutes. And after a brief Q & A, it was Senator Obama's turn. He described himself as a product of the work the Urban League does. Then when his 15 minutes were up, he, too, kept going. Eventually, the moderator rose again.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Marc, you getting up? How much time do I got?

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MARC MORIAL (President, National Urban League): Senator, what do you need?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, I would say you give me five minutes and then we'll get to questions. Since I waited 45 minutes, I figured you're going to give me that for five more.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Obama got his equal time. Then during Q & A, he was asked this by the other moderator, journalist George Curry.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Journalist): There's no question that this country is racially polarized.

Sen. OBAMA: Right.

Mr. CURRY: Whether it's the - you look at the O.J. Simpson verdict, the government response to Katrina, or even Barry Bonds trying to break Hank Aaron's home-run record.

GONYEA: What, he asked, can Obama do to close that gap. The candidate then raised his right hand as if taking the oath of office.

Sen. OBAMA: The day I'm inaugurated, the country looks at itself differently. And don't underestimate that power. Don't underestimate that transformation.

GONYEA: So it was a day when Senators Obama and Clinton each tried to rise above their recent sniping. But also one when neither would give even an inch as they made their case for their candidacies.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, St. Louis.

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