January 31, 2008
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton kicked off their final debate before Super Tuesday contests on a cordial note, and reached out to backers of former rival John Edwards in their scrappy chase for delegates.
Obama called Edwards "a voice for this party and this country for many years to come." Clinton saluted both Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, as setting "their personal example of courage and leadership" in their advocacy for the poor.
Facing only each other in a debate for the first time, both candidates acknowledged policy differences but also sought to ratchet back what had become increasingly personal attacks.
"I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign. I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over," Obama said the day his campaign reported raising a staggering $32 million in January, cash aplenty to advertise all through the expensive Super Tuesday states, with its nearly two dozen contests, and beyond.
The two walked briskly together onto the stage of the Kodak Theater, home of the Academy Awards, with Clinton walking in front of Obama and both waving to the audience. There was no attempt to shake hands, avoiding an uncomfortable moment. Obama faced questions earlier this week about whether he had snubbed Clinton in turning away from her at President Bush's State of the Union address on Monday night.
Both predicted that one of them would be the next president in a history-making inaugural, but then plunged into airing their differences on providing universal health care insurance, meeting with leaders of rogue nations and on Iraq policy.
Clinton also emphasized the importance for the next president to be ready to take over the job "on Day One."
"The next president will walk into the Oval Office and waiting there will be a stack of problems," Clinton said. She said these included "an economy not working for the vast majority of Americans."
It was their first one-on-one debate of the campaign season, televised by CNN.
"When we started off, we had eight candidates on this stage. We now are down to two after 17 debates," Obama said. "And, you know, it is a testimony to the Democratic Party and it is a testimony to this country that we have the opportunity to make history, because I think one of us two will end up being the next president of the United States of America."
Obama would be the first black president if elected, Clinton the first female president.
Edwards was the most recent Democratic candidate to bow out, announcing his intentions on Wednesday without endorsing either Obama or Clinton. Both signaled a clear desire to pick up Edwards support, as well as his delegates.
"I want to acknowledge a candidate who left the race this week who did such an outstanding job ... elevating the issues of poverty and the plight of working families all across the country. And we wish him and Elizabeth well," Obama said.
Clinton said the Republicans are "more of the same" and, gesturing toward Obama, she said, "We will change our country."
The nation's weakening economy was a prime topic, and both candidates were pressed about the common Republican charge that
they are tax-and-spend liberals.
Obama focused on Republican front-runner John McCain, praising his two votes against Bush's first-term tax cuts and questioning his support now for extending them. "Somewhere along the line, the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels," the Illinois senator said, referring to the name of McCain's campaign bus.
Both Obama and Clinton nodded in agreement as they compared Democratic economic solutions to those put forward by the GOP.