Clinton, Obama Face Off in Virginia

At the Virginia Democrats' annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama were featured speakers in an event that emphasized the battle to come in the state on Feb. 12.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Primary and caucus voting in Louisiana, Washington and Nebraska had barely wrapped up before the Democratic candidates were off campaigning in the next big primary region: Maryland and the District of Columbia will go to the polls Tuesday, but the most competitive of the three states to hold primaries that day is Virginia.

That's where Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made their case before state Democrats at their annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

(Soundbite of cheering)

AUDIE CORNISH: Hundreds of people waved placards and danced outside the Virginia Commonwealth University Siegel Center where the last two Democrats vying for the nomination were the headlining event.

(Soundbite of chanting)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hillary, Hillary, Hillary.

CORNISH: More than 6,000 turned out for the event, double its normal size. The state hasn't backed a Democrat in the presidential race since 1964, and Senator Hillary Clinton opened her speech with words that spoke to the optimism of Democrats in the state.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York, Presidential Candidate): Let me ask you something: are you ready to take back the White House and take back our country?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. CLINTON: Well, so am I and I am so ready to see Virginia in the winning Democratic column in November.

CORNISH: In her speech, Clinton made universal healthcare a central point as well as her plan to begin bringing troops back from Iraq within 60 days of her presidency. She hardly mentioned her Democratic rival, except in glowing terms, and reserved her fire for the leading Republican senator, John McCain and the Bush administration.

Sen. CLINTON: I am ready to make the case for the Democratic Party from universal healthcare to making it clear that once again America is open for business in the rest of the world. The era of cowboy diplomacy will be over.

CORNISH: But several times throughout the night, Clinton supporters were overwhelmed by the Obama fans who alternated between chanting his name or we will Barack you and doing the wave.

(Soundbite of cheering)

CORNISH: And for his part Obama took the stage riding the energy of winds from earlier in the day.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presidential Candidate): We won in Louisiana, we won in Nebraska, we won in Washington State, we won north, we won south, we won in between, and I believe that we can win Virginia on Tuesday if you're ready to stand for change.

CORNISH: While Obama mentioned the affordability of his healthcare plan and touched on issues such as improving education, he spent much of his speech comparing his electability against Clinton's in facing the potential Republican nominee.

Sen. OBAMA: This fall we owe the American people a real choice. It's a choice between debating John McCain about who has the most experience in Washington or debating him about who's most likely to change Washington. Because that's a debate that we can win.

CORNISH: A hundred and sixty-eight delegates all together will be at stake when Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia go to the polls. But while Obama is expected to do well in all three and pick up steam this week, the Clinton campaign is eyeing even larger delegate loads coming up next month in Texas and Ohio.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Richmond, Virginia.

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