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Presidential candidates are debating who is best prepared to improve the economy. Three Democratic contenders met last night in South Carolina, and NPR's Audie Cornish was there.
AUDIE CORNISH: U.S. stock markets were closed for the holiday, but the plunge in international markets and the anticipated American recession gave this debate a solemn tone at the outset.
Here's Senator Barack Obama.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): You've got the European markets dropped 5 percent. The expectation is, is that the Dow Jones tomorrow may do the same. We could be sliding into an extraordinary recession unless we stimulate the economy immediately.
CORNISH: Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards each offered economic stimulus plans, with Edwards proposing the 30-day creation of so-called green-collar jobs, and Clinton citing her proposal to call a 90-day moratorium on home foreclosures. But things deteriorated when Clinton's criticism over the true cost of Obama's fiscal policies became an attack on what she called his praise for Republican Party ideas.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader. I did not mention his name.
Sen. OBAMA: Your husband did.
Sen. CLINTON: Well, I'm here. He's not. And...
Sen. OBAMA: Okay. Well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes.
(Soundbite of applause)
CORNISH: For weeks, Obama has contended former President Bill Clinton has been distorting his record on the campaign trail. While Obama complained of similar treatment last night, Senator Clinton was, if anything, more aggressive than ever before.
Sen. CLINTON: I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Resco, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.
(Soundbite of applause)
CORNISH: Obama denied little more than a passing connection to the Chicago businessman in question, but the pair went on like this for several minutes before John Edwards seized the moment.
Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Senator, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): What I want to say first is, are there three people in this debate, not two?
(Soundbite of crowd)
CORNISH: In past debates, Edwards has aligned himself with Obama as a so-called agent of change against Clinton. But this time, he took advantage of the bickering front-runners.
Mr. EDWARDS: This kind of squabbling - how many children is this going to get health care? How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?
CORNISH: Edwards also joined with Clinton in attacking Obama's voting record in the Illinois Senate and his ability to take the heat.
Mr. EDWARDS: The question is, why would you over 100 times vote present?
Sen. OBAMA: John...
Mr. EDWARDS: I mean, every one of us - every one - you've criticized Hillary. You've criticized me...
Sen. OBAMA: Right.
Mr. EDWARDS: ...for our votes. We've cast hundreds and hundreds of votes. What you're criticizing her for, by the way, you've done to us.
CORNISH: When the conversation veered back onto the issues, health care drew one of the more impassioned arguments from Clinton.
Sen. CLINTON: I think that the whole idea of universal health care is such a core Democratic principle that I am willing to go to the mat for it.
CORNISH: Similarly, Barack Obama was forceful over the issue of how soon and what approach to take in any plan to withdraw from the war in Iraq, a war he called financially unsustainable.
Sen. OBAMA: We will have spent $2 trillion at least, it's estimated, by the time this whole thing is over. That's enough to have rebuilt every road, bridge, hospital, school in America, and still have money left over.
CORNISH: The second half of the event was a love-in compared to the first hour. Side-by-side in comfy red swivel chairs, the candidates talked about race and gender. Obama appealed to end the rhetoric he says could make the contest racially polarizing. He also managed to make light of a question about Bill Clinton being the so-called first black president.
Sen. OBAMA: I would have to, you know, investigate more, you know, Bill's dancing abilities...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. OBAMA: ...you know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was, in fact, a brother.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: It didn't end with a group hug, but the three wound up agreeing their top priority was to unite the party and defeat the man they all seem to think was the strongest Republican in the field: Senator John McCain.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, Myrtle Beach.
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