(dpa) - The rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination dueled for 90 minutes Tuesday night, agreeing to kill or change a regional trade agreement and splitting hairs over how best to provide universal health insurance.
The debate between Senators Hillary Clinton, 60, and Barack Obama, 46, set the stage for the next round of party preference votes March 4 in the key states of Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island, where Clinton must break an 11-contest losing streak to keep her chances alive against the rising challenge of Obama.
During the intense debate broadcast from snowy Cleveland State University in Ohio, Clinton made one of her strongest statements yet about her vote in 2002 that gave US President George W Bush the authority to wage war on Iraq.
She said she would have never have voted "yes" if she had known Bush would circumvent diplomacy and wage a "preemptive war."
Drilled under questioning by two journalists, Clinton and Obama both declared the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a disaster for US industry and declared they would tell Mexico and Canada the deal was dead unless they were willing to renegotiate.
"We need to have a plan to fix NAFTA," said Clinton, who said she would call for a trade-deal moratorium until core labour, environmental and safety standards in partner nations are guaranteed.
Their statements on trade tapped a deep seam of discontent among US workers in the manufacturing industry who have seen tens of thousands of jobs exported overseas by companies that received tax breaks to do so. Ohio is a key state in the industrial rust belt where job losses have been greatest.
Clinton repeated past attacks on Obama for his lack of foreign policy experience, noting that he has "basically threatened to bomb Pakistan" and saying it was irresponsible for him to be willing to meet with "some of the worst dictators in the world without preconditions."
Obama countered that he would only advocate a bombing mission in Pakistan if the country was "unable or unwilling" to act on "actionable intelligence" against al-Qaeda or another terrorist group in its north-west mountain regions, where the Taliban has a foothold.
Under pressure from Clinton, Obama also distanced himself from an endorsement by the anti-Semitic leader of the US Muslim organization, Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan.
"I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community," Obama said, adding that Israel's security was "sacrosanct."
Senator John McCain has all but sewn up the Republican party nomination as Clinton and Obama battle it out.