Monday, January 7, 2008

Steely Clinton attacks Obama as new vote showdown looms

Hillary Clinton launched a searing attack on surging rival Barack Obama, as polls showed Sunday he could inflict a second body blow to her White House hopes in the upcoming New Hampshire primary.

Clinton on Saturday used a tense face-to-face debate, three days before the next crucial 2008 test to argue her rival was inconsistent, inexperienced, and more fond of words than action.

"He could have a pretty good debate with himself," a steely Clinton said, trying to pin the damaging 'flip-flop label on Obama on hot-button issues like healthcare, national security and Iraq.

Clinton came out swinging after a humiliating third place in Thursday's leadoff Iowa caucuses, which validated Obama's soaring message of hope, change and cleansing America's poisoned politics.

"You have changed positions within three years on a range of issues that you put forth when you ran for the Senate and have changed," she said.

"You said that records matter."

She also argued his powerful rhetoric did not mean he would be effective in driving reform, and said her quest to be the first woman president showed she was an agent of change.

"Words are not actions. And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action."

Obama, stature enhanced by his Iowa triumph, avoided serious gaffes, appeared unruffled by Clinton's attacks, and smoothly deflected them with his own political message.

"What I think is important that we don't do is try to distort each other's records as election day approaches here in New Hampshire.

"What I think the people of America are looking for are people who are going to be straight about the issues," Obama said.

New polls meanwhile showed the effect of Obama's Iowa momentum.

In a CNN/WMUR survey, one of the first since the Iowa caucuses, Obama and Clinton were locked up on 33 percent of likely primary voters. Obama was up four points from a similar poll in late December and Clinton was down one.

Another poll, by the Concord Monitor newspaper, had Obama with a slender one point lead over Clinton, 34 to 33 percent.

The Clinton campaign rejected the idea Obama was vaulting from victory in Iowa, to a win in New Hampshire on Tuesday, saying his poll 'bounce' was negligable.

In a rare moment of levity, Clinton was asked why people appeared to like Obama more.

"Well that hurts my feelings," Clinton said, sparking laughter from the audience, ... "But I'll try to go on."

"He's very likable. I agree with that. ... I don't think I'm that bad," said Clinton, showing the softer side her campaign has tried to highlight to head off claims that she has a polarizing character.

Obama, adding bite to a sugary exchange, joked "You're likeable enough, Hillary," before she went back on the attack.

"In 2000, we, unfortunately, ended up with a president who people said they wanted to have a beer with, who said he wanted to be a uniter, not a divider."

"I'm offering 35 years of experience making change."

The Republican debate was the more bruising.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Republican Iowa caucuses, had to defend his remark that President George W. Bush's foreign policy had been arrogant.

Arizona Senator John McCain, who tied for third in Iowa but leads polls in New Hampshire, said he was the one Republican consistently right on Iraq.

"I know how to lead, I have been involved in these issues and I know how to solve them," said McCain.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney took countless attacks: at one point he accused Huckabee of mischaracterizing his position and Huckabee shot back, "which one?"

McCain accused Romney of distorting his views on illegal immigrants.

"My friend, you can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads. But it still won't be true," McCain said.

Republicans gave Obama a taste of attacks he will face if he wins the nomination, in treatment which suggested he was now seen as the Democratic front-runner.

"Senator Obama does not have the national security experience and background to lead this nation," McCain said.

New Hampshire and a few other states hold "semi-open" primaries that allow independents to get involved on the side of their choice.

Independents comprise some 44 percent of the approximately 850,000 voters in the state and can have a decisive role. Some candidates shape their message to appeal to this crucial bloc.

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