CLEVELAND -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama sparred on health care, trade and the Iraq War last night, a week before potentially climactic primaries in Ohio and Texas that could resolve the long Democratic nomination battle.
Through 90 minutes of occasionally tense exchanges, the candidates broke little new ground on issues while assailing one another's campaign tactics and judgment.
Viewers had a chance to compare the candidates in a series of policy questions -- most familiar, some novel -- but the broadcast offered no obvious turning point that seemed likely to alter the trajectory of a campaign in which Mr. Obama has supplanted the New York senator as the Democrat's national front-runner.
The debate opened with an extended argument over the candidates' health care proposals. Mr. Obama defended his version against Mrs. Clinton's criticism that it would leave 15 million Americans uninsured because it does not require all adults to purchase health insurance.
Mr. Obama contended again that the chief reason people do not buy health insurance is that it is too expensive and he faulted Mrs. Clinton's plan for mandating such purchases.
Mrs. Clinton argued that that wasn't good enough.
"In fact, it would be as though Franklin Roosevelt said, let's make Social Security voluntary. That's, you know -- that's -- let's let everybody get in it if they can afford it. Or if President Johnson said, let's make Medicare voluntary.''
Mr. Obama countered that Medicare Part B was successful, though optional, because it was affordable for most seniors.
Both candidates said they planned to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, while Mrs. Clinton contended that the Obama camp was guilty of sending out inaccurate mailings on her position on the accord.
"Well, I think that it is inaccurate for Sen. Clinton to say that she's always opposed NAFTA,'' Mr. Obama said. He defended his campaign's literature while noting that he too had been the target of toughly worded mail pieces and hadn't "whined'' about them.
Mr. Obama contended that Mrs. Clinton was willing to embrace the record of her husband's administration on some issues and not on others.
"What I've said -- and what I would continue to maintain -- is you can't take credit for all the good things that happen but then, when it comes to issues like NAFTA, you say, 'Well, behind the scenes, I was disagreeing.' That doesn't work,'' he said. "So you have to, I think, take both responsibility, as well as credit.''
The NAFTA agreement was negotiated during the administration of former President George H.W. Bush and embraced by President Clinton, who expended his political capital in its ratification.
Mrs. Clinton has spoken in favor of the accord in the past but reiterated the stand she has advocated throughout this campaign -- that it did not bring the benefits it promised and that it should be reviewed as part of an overall "time out on trade'' in the first months of her administration.
The Clinton campaign has voiced increasing frustration at what it contends is favorable treatment of Mr. Obama in recent days and Mrs. Clinton showed a flash of irritation at her questioners last night
When asked about NAFTA, she said, " Well, could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time? And I don't mind. You know, I'll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious.''
Pointing to a weekend skit mocking reporters' infatuation with the Illinois senator, she added, "And if anybody saw "Saturday Night Live," you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow.''
Mr. Obama was asked to react to the virtual endorsement of his campaign from Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Obama emphasized his disagreement with the controversial cleric's anti-Semitic views and said he had denounced him in the past. As evidence of his overall attitude toward the Jewish community, he cited his remarks before a black audience in which he had denounced anti-Semitism within the African-American community.
The answer wasn't good enough for Mrs. Clinton, who suggested that she had more forcefully rejected the support of an anti-Semitic group in her first run for the U.S. Senate.
"I'm just saying that you asked specifically if he would reject it,'' she said. "And there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting. And I think when it comes to this sort of, you know, inflammatory -- I have no doubt that everything that Barack just said is absolutely sincere. But I just think, we've got to be even stronger.''
A seemingly perplexed Mr. Obama said, "I have to say I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word "reject" Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word "denounce," then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.''
Tim Russert, who moderated the debate with NBC's Brian Williams, tried to press the Illinois senator on whether or not he was going back on his word on the issue of accepting federal funding for the general election. He once seemed to say he would but now both Mr. McCain and Sen. Clinton have criticized him for evading a definitive answer on the question.
"If I am the nominee, then I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that is fair for both sides,'' he said.
Last night, the question on whether Mr. Obama had the experience to sit in the Oval Office gave him one more opportunity to tee up and drive his oft-repeated criticism of Mrs. Clinton for having voted for the Senate measure that authorized the Iraq War.
Near the end of the debate, Mrs. Clinton repeated her acknowledgement that she regretted the vote.
Mr. Obama took to the stage at Cleveland State University buoyed by promising poll numbers and key local and national endorsements. He appeared at a news conference here yesterday morning with Sen. Chris Dodd, the former Democratic presidential candidate whose White House bid expired in the Iowa balloting that gave Mr. Obama his first breakout victory. Mr. Dodd was the first of the big field of Democrats who criss-crossed Iowa and New Hampshire last year to choose sides in the Obama-Clinton final.
Former Cleveland Mayor Michael White joined the Obama bandwagon on the eve of the debate as well, along with Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. Those decisions followed a barrage of poll results showing gains for the Illinois senator here and in Texas, the other big-state prize next Tuesday, a primary date shared by Vermont and Rhode Island as well.
This was the 20th and possibly the last of the Democratic debates, depending on the results of the March 4 contests.
Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562. First Published February 27, 2008 5:30 AM