Clinton, Obama engage in heated spat at S.C. debate



By Nedra Pickler

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama accused each other of repeatedly and deliberately distorting the truth for political gain Monday night in a highly personal, finger-wagging debate that ranged from the war in Iraq to Bill Clinton’s role in the campaign.

Obama told the former first lady he was helping unemployed workers on the streets of Chicago when “you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.”

Clinton said that she was fighting against misguided Republican policies “when you were practicing law and representing your contributor … in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.”

Obama seemed particularly irritated at the former president, whom he accused of uttering a series of distortions to aid his wife’s presidential effort.

“I’m here. He’s not,” she snapped.

“Well, I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” Obama countered.

The two rivals, joined by former Sen. John Edwards, debated at close quarters five days before the South Carolina primary – and 15 days before the equivalent of a nationwide primary across 20 states that will go a long way toward settling the battle for the party’s nomination.

Clinton was the national front-runner for months, but Obama won the Iowa caucuses three weeks ago, knocking her off-stride. She recovered quickly, winning the New Hampshire primary in an upset, and won the popular vote in the Nevada caucuses while Obama won one more delegate than she.

The Democratic electorate in South Carolina is expected to be roughly 50 percent black, an evident advantage for Obama in a historic race that matches a black man against a woman.

Even in the superheated atmosphere of the primary, the statements and exchanges between Clinton and Obama were unusually acrimonious.

Edwards, who badly trails his rivals, tried to stay above the fray while pleading for equal time.

“We have got to understand, this is not about us personally. It’s about what we are trying to do for this country,” Edwards said to applause from the audience.

With the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a backdrop, the candidates also addressed racial equality.

Clinton and Edwards compared their records on helping to alleviate poverty, while Obama was asked if he agreed with the famed black novelist Toni Morrison who dubbed Bill Clinton “the first black president.”

Obama praised the former president’s “affinity” with black people but also drew laughs.

“I would have to investigate more, Bill’s dancing abilities and some of this other stuff before I accurately judged whether he was, in fact, a brother.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Clinton joked.