Clinton, Obama duel over Iraq, trade, before next state votes

(Los Angeles Times) - In a bruising debate in which she tried to halt Barack Obama's momentum, Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday night saved her sharpest blow for the media, accusing MSNBC's moderators of coddling the Illinois senator.

Clinton, who has lost 11 consecutive contests and her front-runner status, didn't score a knockout, with an unruffled and confident Obama parrying her point by point during a contentious 90-minute showdown at Cleveland State University.

But it wasn't for lack of trying. An aggressive Clinton spent most of her time criticizing his positions on health care, Afghanistan and economic reform, while accusing him of not forcefully rejecting the support of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, after Obama said he denounced the minister's anti-Semitic statements.

"If the word `reject' is important, I concede the point," he said, vowing to rebuild what he called a "frayed" relationship between blacks and Jews.

Obama, taking a page from Clinton's conciliatory final statement in last week's Texas debate, said Clinton would be a "worthy nominee" who "would be a much better president than John McCain."

In a startling expression of her campaign's bitterness toward what they perceive as a pro-Obama bias in the news media, Clinton suggested the moderators were giving Obama preferential treatment. As proof, she cited a "Saturday Night Live" skit portraying journalists fawning over Obama.

"In the last several debates I seem to get the first question all the time -- and I don't mind," Clinton said when moderator Brian Williams asked her about her stance on NAFTA.

"If you saw `Saturday Night Live' last Saturday, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and get him another pillow," she quipped as some in the crowd booed.

The debate, staged with the candidates sitting at a conference table, had the air of a job interview, with moderator Tim Russert grilling both on a range of issues, often forcing them to defend statements they made in video clips.

The Illinois senator took his own shots at Clinton, suggesting that she whined about campaign fliers slamming her positions on health care and NAFTA.

"I have endured over the course over this camp repeated negative mail ... on the other hand I don't fault Sen. Clinton," he said. "We haven't whined about it because that's the nature of these campaigns."

Obama also sharpened his attack on Clinton's 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq invasion, accusing her of having "facilitated and enabled" George Bush to "drive the bus into a ditch."

Clinton still holds a 6- to 7-point lead in Ohio, according to polls released this week. But that's down from double-digit lead two weeks ago -- and her once-solid lead in Texas has evaporated.

She repeated her denial that her campaign circulated a photo of Obama wearing Somali tribal garb, and Obama accepted, saying, "I take Senator Clinton at her word."

Earlier in the day, Clinton's national finance chairman Terry McAuliffe told a business group in Madison, Wis., that it "sure is" possible Obama and the former first lady would be running mates -- although he didn't specify who would top the ticket.

A few hours before the debate, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd endorsed Obama, saying, "It's now the hour to come together. ... This is the moment for Democrats and independents and others to come together, to get behind this candidacy."

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