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Rivals step up war over 'words'

Clinton, Obama spar about lines in debate largely devoid of attacks

Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton responded to the crowd before tackling the economy and illegal immigration at the presidential debate last night in Austin, Texas. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton responded to the crowd before tackling the economy and illegal immigration at the presidential debate last night in Austin, Texas. (lm otero/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / February 22, 2008

Hillary Clinton, fighting to revive her flagging presidential bid, last night accused Democratic rival Barack Obama of borrowing the words of others to conduct a campaign she characterized as long on rhetoric and short on specifics.

"If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words," Clinton said at a debate at the University of Texas at Austin, referring to Obama's acknowledged use of speech lines by his friend and adviser, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

"And, you know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in; it's change you can Xerox," Clinton said, referring to one of Obama's campaign slogans and drawing boos from some in the audience while Obama shook his head.

Asked about the plagiarism allegation earlier in the debate, Obama dismissed it as part of what he called "the silly season" in the heated campaign for the Democratic nomination.

"Deval is a national cochairman of my campaign and suggested an argument that we both share: that words are important. That words matter," Obama said. "And the no tion that I had plagiarized from somebody who was one of my national cochairs, who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think, is silly."

The exchange - occurring after nearly an hour of civil discussion during which both candidates praised each other and refrained from personal attacks - underscored the dynamics of the race, with Clinton emphasizing the specifics of her policy proposals and Obama insisting he could build the coalitions needed to make the changes both Democrats want.

"I do think there is a fundamental difference between us in terms of how change comes about," the Illinois senator said when asked at the CNN-Univision debate to define the distinctions between the two colleagues. He bristled at Clinton's comments on the campaign trail that he isn't offering real solutions.

"The implication is that the people voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional," Obama said, eliciting a chuckle from the crowd. But the millions who have voted for him - and the newspaper editorial boards who endorsed him - Obama said, want to stop "the bickering" in Washington.

Clinton, meanwhile, said she has the legislative record that makes her qualified to lead the country.

"I was somewhat amused the other night when, on one of the TV shows, one of Senator Obama's supporters was asked to name one of the accomplishments of Senator Obama, and he couldn't," Clinton said. "I do offer solutions."

Later in the forum, Clinton passed up a chance to say directly what she has said in speeches this week - that Obama is unprepared to be commander in chief.

"I want you to think, 'Who do you want to have in the White House answering the phone at 3 o'clock in the morning when some crisis breaks out around the world?' " Clinton asked at a rally in downtown Laredo yesterday.

On the debate stage, Clinton talked instead about her experience as a first lady traveling the world.

Obama said, "I wouldn't be running if I didn't believe I was ready to be commander in chief."

The debate, the first of two face-offs between the Democratic contenders before the key Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4, was a critical platform for Clinton, who is on an 11-contest losing streak and needs wins in Texas and Ohio to stall Obama's momentum in both primary victories and campaign fund-raising.

But while Clinton confidently detailed her record and her domestic policy proposals, her efforts to diminish Obama as less-than-substantive were not always well received in the raucous debate hall. The two candidates will have one more debate, Tuesday in Cleveland, before the March 4 primaries, which include Rhode Island and Vermont.

Clinton had long been favored in Texas, where her popularity among Latinos is a strength, but an ABC News/Washington Post poll released yesterday suggested Clinton and Obama are virtually tied, 48 percent to 47 percent.

The candidates last night wooed Latino voters, with both Clinton and Obama expressing skepticism about a border fence to halt illegal immigration.

While the two senators voted for a sweeping immigration package that includes the still-unfinished fence, they agreed that local communities should be consulted before completing it.

"I would have a review. I would listen to the people living along the border," Clinton said.

Obama echoed her response, adding a shot at the Bush administration for imposing a border fence on communities that might not like it.

Both senators also said more Americans should learn a second language, but agreed that English should remain the "common" and unifying language of the country.

On Cuba, the candidates sparred lightly, with Clinton saying she would not meet with Fidel Castro's successor until the Cuban government had shown it had made certain progress in human rights and other areas of democracy. "I would not meet with him until there was evidence that change was happening," Clinton said.

Obama said he would meet without those preconditions, though he said he would not agree to a meeting without sufficient "preparation."

"We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate," Obama said, crediting President Kennedy for first uttering the line.

At the end of the debate, when the candidates were asked to describe a moment of crisis, Obama recalled his youth, when he was raised by a single mother after his father left the family. "There were rocky periods during my youth, when I made mistakes and was off course," Obama said, in an apparent reference to his acknowledged drug use as a teenager.

The realization that he needed to take responsibility for his actions and that he could bring people together to make change, he said, led him to his career as a community organizer and civil rights lawyer.

Clinton, answering the same question, described a wrenching scene at a military medical center in San Antonio, watching a soldier whose face was disfigured from a bomb blast speak on behalf of the amputees being treated at the facility. "You know, the hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country," Clinton said, her voice softening with emotion.

"And I resolved at a very young age that I'd been blessed and that I was called by my faith and by my upbringing to do what I could to give others the same opportunities and blessings that I took for granted," she added. "That's what gets me up in the morning. That's what motivates me in this campaign."

Susan Milligan can be reached at s_milligan@globe.com.

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