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A lot of smiles and a few gentle jokes at the final Democratic debate before the Super Tuesday primaries last night. Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton put aside the acrimony that marked their last encounter in South Carolina. They had a cordial debate about Iraq, immigration and health care without any personal attacks.
NPR national correspondent Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON: The debate took place at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, and the cameras panned the audience of celebrities as if it was Oscar night. But the two biggest celebrities were on the stage: the first African-American and the first woman with a real shot at becoming president of the United States. Barack Obama set the tone, a very different one than the candidates have been striking on the campaign trail.
BARACK OBAMA: I also want to note that I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign. I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
LIASSON: But even without the personal attacks, Obama and Clinton clashed on who had the better leadership style - Obama stressing his ability to inspire and bring people together, Clinton pointing to her experience and ability to get things done. They argued over whose healthcare plan would cover more people.
And they clashed over Iraq, the issue that's divided them most sharply since the campaign began. Clinton was once again forced to defend her vote for the war in 2002. She tried to refocus the discussion on how to go forward in Iraq, saying she wants to begin withdrawing troops within 60 days of becoming president.
HILLARY CLINTON: It will be important, however, that our nominee be able to present a reasoned argument against continuing our presence in Iraq and the necessary credentials and gravitas for commander-in-chief. That has to cross that threshold in the mind of every American voter.
LIASSON: Obama kept coming back to his opposition to the war from the beginning.
OBAMA: Senator Clinton mentioned the issue of gravitas and judgment. The reason that this is important, again, is that Senator 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
LIASSON: The debate was sponsored by CNN, Politico.com, and the Los Angeles Times. Some of the questions were sent in from voters.
Karen Roper, from Pickens, South Carolina, wanted to ask Clinton this...
KAREN ROPER: How can you be an agent of change when we've had the same two families in the White House for the last 30 years?
LIASSON: Clinton said she wanted to be considered on her own merits, but...
CLINTON: And you know, it did take a Clinton to clean after the first Bush, and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
LIASSON: The subject of Bill Clinton came up again when Hillary 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.
ROPER: If your campaign can't control the former president now, what will it be like when you're in the White House?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LIASSON: This is my campaign, Clinton said. The fact is, I'm running for president.
CLINTON: But at the end of the day, it is my name that's on the ballot, and it will be my responsibility as president and commander-in-chief. I will have to make the call.
LIASSON: At the end of the debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates about what he called a dream ticket, something that would seem out of the question after the bitterness of the last few weeks. But maybe not.
WOLF BLITZER: Would you consider an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket going down the road?
OBAMA: Well, obviously there's a big difference between those two.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LIASSON: Obama tried to sidestep the question, saying it was premature and presumptuous to speculate about vice president.
BLITZER: Is the answer yes? It sounds like a yes, that she would be on your short list.
OBAMA: You know, I'm sure Hillary would be on anybody's short list. So...
BLITZER: All right. What about you, Senator Clinton? What do you think about a Clinton-Obama, Obama-Clinton ticket?
CLINTON: Well, I have to agree with everything Barack just said.
LIASSON: After the debate was over, Obama and Clinton huddled on stage, whispering into each other's ears. Their body language seemed to suggest that these two candidates really liked each other, something hard to believe after the direction the campaign has taken recently. 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 Tuesday's primaries and caucuses.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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