By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
Hillary Clinton, fighting to revive her flagging presidential bid, tonight 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 in Austin, referring to Obama's acknowledged use of speech lines by his friend and adviser, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
"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, using one of Obama's campaign slogans and drawing boos from the audience while Obama shook his head.
Asked about the plagiarism allegation, Obama had earlier dismissed it as part of what he called "the silly season'' in the heated campaign for the Democratic nomination.
"Deval is a national co-chairman of my campaign, and suggested an argument that we both share: that words are important. That words matter,'' Obama said. "And the notion that I had plagiarized from somebody who was one of my national co-chairs, who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think, is silly.''
The exchange -- coming after nearly an hour of civil discussion during which both candidates praised each other and refrained from personal attacks -- defined 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 term 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 in Texas 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 had the legislative record making 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 earlier today.
On the debate stage, Clinton talked instead about her experience as 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 Democrats 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 Clinton did not deal a knockout punch to derail Obama. While Clinton confidently detailed her record and her domestic policy proposals, her efforts to diminish Obama as less-than-substantive did not appear to be well-received in the debate hall. The two candidates will have one more debate, Tuesday in Cleveland, before the March 4 primaries, which include Rhode Island and Vermont as well as Ohio and Texas.