A Kodak moment: Hillary and Obama make nice
Mood of TV debate surprisingly civil after they snubbed each other early this week.
UNLIKE the Republicans, the Democrats appear to have turned their presidential nomination contest into a lovefest. In the heart of Hollywood at the Los Angeles Kodak Theatre – the grand arena for the annual Oscar ceremonies – former first lady Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama shared the debate stage between them for the first time on Thursday in an encounter which was marked by niceties.
Before the historic showdown between an African- American and a woman in a presidential debate, Mr Obama held Mrs Clinton’s chair for her before taking his own seat. And at the end of the two-hour encounter, he held her chair again as the New York senator rose.
Then, almost in an embrace, they whispered into each other’s ear in a moment which captured the civility of the debate. The mood was in stark contrast with that at Monday’s State of the Union address on Capitol Hill, when they snubbed each other.
“I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign; I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over,” declared Mr Obama. “We’re running a competitive race, but it’s because we both love this country, and we believe deeply in the issues that are at stake.”
If they were trying to outdo each other in being nice after the testy confrontations of the past, it was for one reason only: to avoid tarnishing their image as they race virtually neck and neck into crucial polls in several states next Tuesday.
Mrs Clinton maintains a slender lead and considerable institutional strength going into battle in the 22 states, but Mr Obama has built up momentum from high-profile endorsements and impressive fund-raising.
Niceties aside, both candidates came to the debate with the single-minded goal of winning over supporters of former North Carolina senator John Edwards, who dropped out of the race this week.
Mr Obama called Mr Edwards “a voice for this party and this country for many years to come”. Mrs Clinton hailed Mr Edwards and his wife Elizabeth for “their personal example of courage and leadership” in their advocacy of help for the poor.
The debate between Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama underscored their rivalry on key issues, the most important of which was health care.
Mrs Clinton’s plan requires all Americans to have coverage, and she criticised Mr Obama’s proposal because it could leave up to 15 million people uninsured.
“You have to bite this bullet, you have to say ‘Yes, we will try to get to universal health care’,” she said.
Another issue was immigration, especially the question of whether illegal immigrants should be able to obtain driver’s licences. Mr Obama is in favour of giving them the licences; Mrs Clinton initially backed the idea but now opposes it.
They also drew a line in the sand on Iraq.
Mr Obama, an early opponent of the Iraq war, questioned Mrs Clinton’s 2002 Senate vote to authorise the war. He homed in on her frequent declaration that she has the experience to lead from “Day One” in the White House.
“Part of the argument that I’m making in this campaign is that it is important to be right on Day One,” he said.
Both Democratic candidates aimed their sharpest words, however, at the Republicans.
They took Arizona Senator John McCain to task for saying that US troops could remain in Iraq for 100 years, and for supporting the Bush administration’s tax cuts for wealthy Americans after initially opposing them.
Mrs Clinton took a swipe at President George W. Bush’s handling of the economy. “We have a president who basically ran as the CEO, MBA president, and look what we got,” she said.
“It did take a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush.”
If the Democrats were trying to make peace, the Republicans were in a slugfest.
There was considerable bad blood between Mr McCain, a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran, and his closest challenger, Mr Mitt Romney. They sparred in a live TV debate on Wednesday – and continued their aggressive campaigning soon after.
For the Democrats, the smiles also might not hold for too long, with Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama returning to the stump in the run-up to Super Tuesday.
CHOICE FOR VICE-PRESIDENT? THAT’S A LONG WAY OFF
“We’ve got a lot more road to travel, and so I think it’s premature for either of us to start speculating about vice-presidents…I’m sure that Hillary would be on anybody’s short list.”
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA, when asked about an “Obama-Clinton or a Clinton-Obama” Democratic dream ticket for the White House. His main rival Hillary Clinton agreed, prompting laughter from the audience.