Democrats Cordially Spar at Las Vegas Debate Democratic presidential candidates meet in Las Vegas for their last debate before Nevada Caucuses on Saturday. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton soften their tone towards each other after feuding for several days over race and gender.
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Democrats Cordially Spar at Las Vegas Debate

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Democrats Cordially Spar at Las Vegas Debate

Democrats Cordially Spar at Las Vegas Debate

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama publicly declared a truce during last night's debate in Las Vegas. The two Democratic presidential candidates had been going at each other for nearly a week over charges of racial insensitivity. But during the debate on MSNBC, Clinton and Obama, along with former Senator John Edwards, seemed to recognize that this is a fight that wasn't doing any of them or their party any good.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: If there was any doubt that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had decided to close the book on their recent differences over race, Clinton settled the matter with her first statement.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): Senator Obama and I agree completely that, you know, neither race nor gender should be a part of this campaign.

JAFFE: Clinton had offended some African-Americans when she said that despite Dr. Martin Luther King's eloquence, it took a practical politician like President Lyndon Johnson to make the Civil Rights Act a reality. The Obama campaign called that an affront to Dr. King's legacy, and the argument escalated.

But last night, Clinton made the whole flap seem as though it had almost nothing to do with the candidates themselves.

Sen. CLINTON: We both have exuberant and sometimes uncontrollable supporters, that we need to get this campaign where it should be.

JAFFE: Race was briefly joined by another sensitive issue. Moderator Brian Williams asked Obama about persistent rumors flying around the Internet.

Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Moderator): That you are trying to hide that fact that you're a Muslim, that you took the oath of office on the Koran and not the Bible, that you will not pledge allegiance to the flag...

JAFFE: Obama chuckled as he listened to this, then answered...

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I am a Christian. I have been sworn in with a Bible.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I figured.

Sen. OBAMA: I pledge allegiance and lead the pledge of allegiance sometimes in the United States Senate when I'm presiding. I have been victimized by these lies. Fortunately, the American people are, I think, smarter than folks give them credit for.

JAFFE: John Edwards was also asked about race and gender by moderator Natalie Morales, leaving Hillary Clinton to exclaim off mic, poor John.

Ms. NATALIE MORALES (Moderator): What is a white male to do running against these historic candidacies?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CLINTON: Poor John.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): You know, I have to say, I'm proud of the fact that we have a woman and an African-American who are very, very serious candidates for the presidency. It just says really good things about America.

JAFFE: The debate took place just four days before the Nevada caucuses. So two of the topics last night were local. Nevada has the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation, and the candidates touted their plans to alleviate the crisis. The other Nevada issue was the perennial controversy over Yucca Mountain, the proposed federal nuclear waste dump. Just about everyone in this state hates Yucca Mountain. All three candidates say they're against it. But one way or another, the conversation kept returning to race. There was this Tim Russert question about the practical realities of Barack Obama's candidacy.

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Moderator): Do you believe there's a history of a division where Latino voters will not vote for a black candidate?

Sen. OBAMA: Not in Illinois. They all voted for me. And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: Obama is hoping that appeal to Latino voters will repeat itself in Nevada, where about a quarter of the population is Hispanic. And next week, racial divisions may again be an issue when South Carolina Democrats - about half of them African-American - vote in the primary there. It's become obvious that as the primaries spread to increasingly diverse states, all of these candidates will have to reach across racial and ethnic lines to have a chance to win.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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