Clinton on Offensive to Stop Obama's Momentum

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participate in a debate in Cleveland on Tuesday. i i

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participate in a debate at Cleveland State University in Cleveland on Tuesday. Clinton and Obama will face off in the crucial Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4. J.D. Pooley/Getty Images hide caption

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Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participate in a debate in Cleveland on Tuesday.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participate in a debate at Cleveland State University in Cleveland on Tuesday. Clinton and Obama will face off in the crucial Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4.

J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

In their final meeting before next Tuesday's crucial primaries in Ohio and Texas, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama clashed on health care, trade, Iraq and campaign tactics in a debate sponsored by MSNBC and held at Cleveland State University. The pressure was on Clinton to find a way to stop Obama's momentum.

On the campaign trail last weekend, Clinton said she wanted a debate about Obama's tactics, and Tuesday night she got one.

"What I find regrettable is that in Sen. Obama's mailing that he has sent out across Ohio, it is almost as though the health insurance companies and the Republicans wrote it," she said.

Obama had his own complaints.

"Sen. Clinton has ... constantly sent out negative attacks on us," he said, "and we haven't whined about it because I understand that's the nature of the campaigns.

"But to suggest somehow that our mailing is somehow different from the kinds of approaches that Sen. Clinton has taken throughout this campaign I think is simply not accurate," he said.

After 16 minutes on health care, the debate turned to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is extremely unpopular in Ohio, particularly among the blue-collar voters Clinton is counting on. The first question on NAFTA went to Clinton, who cited a late-night TV comedy skit lampooning journalists who swoon over Obama.

"Could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time? And I don't mind. You know, I'll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious," she said. "And if anybody saw Saturday Night Live, you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow."

There was mixture of boos and applause for that line.

NAFTA was one of the major legislative victories of her husband's administration, but on Tuesday, Clinton claimed she'd been a critic of NAFTA from the beginning. Obama argued that she shouldn't cherry pick the accomplishments of the Clinton years.

"You can't take credit for all the good things that happened but then, when it comes to issues like NAFTA, you say, well, I — behind the scenes, I was disagreeing. That doesn't work," he said. "So you have to, I think, take both responsibility as well as credit."

Both candidates got tough questions. Moderator Tim Russert asked Obama if he would enter the public financing system in the general election as he once had promised; John McCain says he will take public financing and is calling Obama's bluff to do the same.

"If I am the nominee, then I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that is fair for both sides, because Tim, as you know, there are all sorts of ways of getting around these loopholes," he said.

If that was a waffle, so was Clinton's answer to why she wouldn't release her tax returns, something Obama has already done. Russert said since she loaned her campaign $5 million, voters have a right to know where the money came from.

"I will release my tax returns. I have consistently said that," she said. But when asked if she would release them before Tuesday's primaries, she said she was too busy. "I hardly have time to sleep."

Obama was grilled about an endorsement from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has, among other things, called Judaism a gutter religion.

"I obviously can't censor him, but it is not support that I sought," Obama said.

When asked if he rejected that support, Obama responded: "I can't say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy. You know, I — you know, I — I have been very clear in my denunciations of him and his past statements."

But that wasn't good enough for Clinton, who saw an opportunity to press Obama on an issue important to Jewish voters.

"You asked specifically if he would reject it and there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting," she said. "And I think when it comes to this sort of, you know, inflammatory ... I just think we've got to be even stronger."

"Tim, I have to say, I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting," Obama responded. "But if the word 'reject' Sen. Clinton feels is better than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point. And I would reject and denounce."

Obama had the easier task last night; he simply had to reject Clinton's attacks and avoid making mistakes. Clinton, on the other hand, had to find some way to raise doubts about Obama's qualifications to be commander in chief and his ability to defeat McCain in the fall. Tuesday night was one of her last best chances to do that until the two big primaries that even former President Bill Clinton says she has to win in order to stay in the race.

What's at Stake in the March 4 Primaries?

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Hillary Clinton i i

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images hide caption

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Hillary Clinton

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio.

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Barack Obama i i

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas. Dave Einsel/Getty Images hide caption

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Barack Obama

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas.

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Read a State-by-State Analysis of March 4 Primaries:

John McCain i i

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio. J.D. Pooley/Getty Images hide caption

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John McCain

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio.

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The Democratic primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont on March 4 are seen as make-or-break for the presidential campaign of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clinton needs to triumph in the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio to halt the momentum of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has won 11 consecutive nominating contests since Super Tuesday (including the Virgin Islands and the Democrats Abroad Global Primary). Even her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has said that Texas and Ohio are must-win states if she is going to have a chance at taking the nomination.

For Obama, a successful March 4 could help nudge him toward the nomination and solidify the growing perception that he is the party's front-runner. He will still have to court the roughly 800 Democratic superdelegates, who act as free agents and who can vote for either candidate, regardless of their state's popular vote. (Both Obama and Clinton have been wooing the superdelegates relentlessly.)

The two candidates have been campaigning heavily in Texas (193 delegates) and Ohio (141), focusing especially on those states' respective Hispanic and working-class voters through rallies and advertisements.

On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain has swept recent primaries in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin, and now delivers speeches with the confidence of a man who is certain to be his party's nominee.

But a recent New York Times article proved to be a major distraction. The article outlined McCain's allegedly close relationship with a female lobbyist, with hints of a friendship that went beyond the professional. (Some commentators make the argument that for someone who stakes his reputation on his honesty and "straight talk," the article has the potential to prove damaging. Others say the story could ultimately help McCain with more conservative Republicans by making the argument that it was an effort by the liberal media to hurt the Arizona senator's prospects.)

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee remains a candidate, though since Super Tuesday, when he did well in the South, he has won in just two states, Louisiana and Kansas. (Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who has not won anywhere, is staying in the race as well, though he faces a challenge back home for his House seat in the March 4 primary.) Huckabee has said he will continue as a candidate until he or McCain has the 1,191 delegates needed to officially capture the nomination.

The Candidates

The Democrats: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama

The Republicans: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Texas Rep. Ron Paul

TEXAS

The Democrats: Clinton is hoping that her strong ties to Texas will give her a boost. She worked in the Rio Grande Valley 35 years ago, registering voters — a fact she often mentions on local campaign stops. Texans also did well under the Bill Clinton White House, earning posts in the Treasury, Energy and Interior departments, along with two ambassadorships.

But Obama is on a roll. The night of Feb. 19, when he was declaring victory in the Wisconsin primary, he did so from Houston — signifying the importance he places on the state. Texas has an odd dual primary/caucus system, and Obama has done very well in states that hold caucuses; in fact, with the exception of Nevada, he has swept every caucus state.

New Texas polls show the two candidates locked in a dead heat.

Texas Democrats must vote in their senatorial districts by ballot, and then also attend a caucus immediately after the polls close. One hundred and twenty-six delegates will be awarded based on the primary, while 42 Democratic delegates will come from the caucus.

The Republicans: Arizona Sen. John McCain has been popular with Hispanics since he co-authored the ultimately unsuccessful immigration bill that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Huckabee, whose record also shows a more moderate viewpoint on immigration than some others in the party would prefer, has been campaigning in Houston and San Antonio.

Hispanics are the key demographic to court in Texas and could make up as much as 40 percent of the total electorate. The candidates have been running Spanish-language ads; the Feb. 21 Democratic debate in Austin was co-sponsored by the Spanish television network Univision.

Another key demographic: African-American voters, expected to be 25 percent of the primary electorate.


OHIO

Ohio's sluggish economy is the key issue in the upcoming primary; unemployment in the Buckeye State is greater than in any state in the region other than Michigan. Candidates of both parties have talked about their plans to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Hundreds of thousands of Ohio's manufacturing jobs have left the area. The state has also been hit hard by high unemployment and home-foreclosure rates.

The Democrats: A recent poll seems to suggest that Obama's support in the Buckeye State is increasing, though Clinton appears to be holding a lead, however tenuous. Two Ohio labor unions, with a combined membership of about a 100,000, switched their backing from former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to Obama. The Illinois senator also has received the national backing of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents more than 1 million truck drivers and warehouse workers. Obama's plans for affordable health care, as well as tax credits for low- and middle-income workers and seniors, could appeal to the state's working class.

Clinton has also campaigned in Ohio, most recently in Youngstown and Columbus. She is hoping to appeal to women and working-class voters, who have made up her base in past primaries. Her health care plan calls for universal coverage, and she has proposed a $70 billion economic stimulus plan that includes a moratorium on foreclosures and an assistance fund for at-risk borrowers. Clinton has started running ads that appeal to blue-collar workers. Her latest Ohio ad begins with the phrase: "You pour coffee, fix hair. You work the night shift at the local hospital. You're often overworked, underpaid, and sometimes overlooked...She understands."

Ohio is not used to playing a decisive role in the nominating process. The last time that happened was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter's victory in the June primary state effectively awarded him the Democratic presidential nomination.


RHODE ISLAND

The Democrats: The Clinton name holds much weight in Rhode Island, a state that Hillary Clinton often visited with her husband when he was president. She also has helped fundraise for several state politicians who double as superdelegates, including U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Providence Mayor David Cicciline.

But as Obama keeps building momentum in his campaign, the question becomes: Will he make inroads into Clinton's base? Michelle Obama spent an afternoon campaigning in Rhode Island, where her brother is a basketball coach at Brown University. Providence is a college town, and its university-age voters are overwhelmingly supporting Obama.

The Republicans: McCain visited Rhode Island in mid-February to try to appeal to New England's more moderate Republicans. He won Rhode Island's 2000 presidential primary with 60 percent of the vote.


VERMONT

The candidates have not made Vermont a major priority in this March 4 contest: It offers just 15 Democratic delegates and 19 GOP delegates.

The Democrats: None of the candidates have campaigned in the state so far. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Vermont Democrats have far surpassed the state's Republicans in fundraising for this election cycle, with $1.4 million going to Democratic candidates and $322,000 to Republicans.

University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson predicts that Obama will do well in the state, since Vermont has a history of supporting maverick candidates, such as Howard Dean in 2000. (Vermont also has a senator who is an independent.)

The Republicans: McCain recently made a quick campaign stop. Huckabee is not expected to do well and is not targeting the state.

Vermont has an open primary, meaning residents can cross party lines to vote for the candidate of their choice.

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