Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidates, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, participate in the televised CNN/LA Times/Politico Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate 31 January 2008 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidates, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama greets New York Sen. Hillary Clinton following the debate Jan. 31.
Leaving behind the acrimony that marked an earlier on-stage encounter in South Carolina, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton held a cordial one-on-one debate Thursday at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, Calif.
The rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination answered questions on health care, Iraq and even the possibility of an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket in the general election.
Obama set the tone with a far warmer approach than the candidates have been using in recent appearances on the campaign trial.
"I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign," he said. "I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over."
But Obama and Clinton did clash on who offers the better leadership style. Obama stressed his ability to inspire and bring people together. Clinton pointed to her experience and ability to get things done.
They also argued over whose health-care plan would cover more people and on Iraq, the issue that has created the deepest divide among the two front-runners since the campaign began.
Forced once again to defend her 2002 Senate vote granting President Bush broad authority to move toward war, Clinton tried to refocus the discussion on how to go forward in Iraq.
She said she wants to begin withdrawing troops within 60 days of becoming president:
"It will be important ... that our nominee be able to present the reasons for getting out of war and the necessary credentials and gravitas for commander in chief," Clinton said. "That has to cross that threshold in the mind of every American voter."
Obama repeated that he has been opposed to the war from the beginning.
"You know, Sen. Clinton mentioned the issue of gravitas and judgment," he said. "The reason that this is important again is that Sen. Clinton, I think, fairly has claimed that she's got the experience on day one. And part of the argument that I'm making in this campaign is that it is important to be right on day one."
The debate was sponsored by CNN, Politico.com and the Los Angeles Times, using some questions sent in by potential voters.
Karen Roper from Pickens, S.C., asked Clinton this:
"How can you be an agent of change when we have had the same two families in the White House for the last 30 years?"
Clinton said she wanted to be considered on her own merits, but added: "You know, it did take a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush."
The subject of former President Bill Clinton came up as well, when Sen. Clinton was asked about the controversial role her husband is playing in her campaign. In a recent interview she admitted his attacks on Obama may have cost her votes in South Carolina, where Obama recorded a decisive primary victory.
"This is my campaign," Clinton said. "The fact is, I'm running for president ... at the end of the day, it is my name that's on the ballot ... as president and commander in chief, I will have to make call."
Moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN asked the rivals whether they might wind up forming a "dream ticket." That seemed out of the question after the bitterness of the last few weeks — but maybe not:
"Would you consider an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket going down the road?" Blitzer asked.
"Well, obviously there's a big difference between those two," Obama replied. Clinton joined in the laughter that greeted his response.
Obama tried to sidestep the question, saying it was premature and presumptuous to speculate about vice presidents. But pressed further, he allowed that "Hillary would be on anybody's short list."
"Well, I have to agree with everything Barack just said," Clinton added, to more laughter.
After the debate was over, Obama and Clinton huddled on stage, whispering into each others' ears — and their body language seemed to suggest that these two candidates really liked each other.
It was as if both Clinton and Obama had decided there was too much to risk by repeating the harsh attacks of their last debate in South Carolina.
And that in turn reflected how strong both of these candidates feel going into the Feb. 5 lineup of more than 20 primaries and caucuses.