Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton clashed sharply in a high-stakes one-on-one debate on Tuesday, accusing each other of falsely portraying their stances on health care, trade and other issues.
Clinton, who needs to win next week in Ohio and Texas to keep her US presidential campaign alive after Obama's streak of 11 straight victories, went on the attack early in the debate at Cleveland State University in Ohio.
Obama fired back repeatedly in several testy but controlled exchanges during a debate that seemed unlikely to change the dynamic of the race before next Tuesday's contests.
The debate was sharper in tone than last week's encounter in Texas, but far less personal and angry than a Democratic debate last month in South Carolina.
Clinton kept up her recent criticism of Obama campaign literature sent to Ohio voters that she said mischaracterised her health care proposal, which includes mandates requiring Americans to purchase health insurance.
"We should have a good debate that uses accurate information, not false, misleading and discredited information, especially on something as important as whether or not we will achieve quality, affordable health care for everyone," the New York senator said.
Obama, an Illinois senator, said Clinton has frequently misrepresented his health care plan, which does not include mandates and which some critics suggest could leave 15 million Americans uninsured.
An estimated 47 million Americans – about a sixth of the population – now have no health insurance, either privately or through the government.
Clinton, once the odds-on favourite to win the Democratic nomination to contest November's presidential election against the Republican candidate, has lost big leads in public opinion polls in Ohio and Texas as Obama has gained momentum and made inroads among her supporters.
Obama said he was interested in bringing the cost of health care down and enforcing mandates could create a burden on some low-income Americans. Clinton's criticisms, he said, were part of a consistent pattern.
Clinton said Obama’s campaign had recently sent out mass mailings with false information about her health care proposal, adding, “it is almost as though the health insurance companies and the Republicans wrote it.”
When it was his turn to speak, Obama said Clinton’s campaign has “constantly sent out negative attacks on us ... We haven’t whined about it because I understand that’s the nature of these campaigns.”
Clinton also said as far as she knew her campaign had nothing to do with circulating a photograph of Obama, who is bidding to be the first black US president, wearing a white turban and a wraparound white robe presented to him by elders in Wajir, in northeastern Kenya, his father’s homeland.
“I take Senator Clinton at her word that she knew nothing about the photo,” Obama said.
"But to suggest somehow that our mailing is somehow different from the kinds of approaches that Senator Clinton has taken throughout this campaign I think is simply not accurate."
With her campaign on the line, Clinton has aggressively challenged Obama in the last few days, questioning his readiness to become commander in chief and chiding him for the health care campaign literature sent to Ohio voters.
In the debate, she attacked Obama for claiming she supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which she said she believes should be renegotiated. She was first lady when her husband, President Bill Clinton, approved the deal.
The trade agreement is unpopular in Ohio, where it has been blamed for contributing to a broad loss of manufacturing jobs in the state.
"You know, I have been a critic of Nafta from the very beginning. I didn't have a public position on it because I was part of the administration. But when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic," Clinton said.
Obama repeated the charge and said he would push to have Nafta redone.
"I think that it is inaccurate for Senator Clinton to say that she's always opposed Nafta. In her campaign for Senate, she said that Nafta, on balance, had been good for New York and good for America," he said.
Clinton complained about having to take the first question more often than Obama, and made reference to her campaign's charges that he gets an easier ride from the national media than she does.
She pointed to a television skit that portrayed a fawning press posing questions to Obama.
"If anybody saw 'Saturday Night Live,' you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," she said. "I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues."
Clinton, who has questioned Obama's foreign policy experience, also stumbled over the likely new Russian president when asked if she knew the name of the successor to President Vladimir Putin – Dmitry Medvedev.
"Medvedev – whatever," she finally said.
The two contenders revisited their differences on the Iraq war. Clinton said Obama, an early opponent of the war, had the advantage of not being in the Senate in 2002 when she voted to authorise the war. But Obama said her vote "facilitated and enabled" President George W. Bush's decision to go to war.
"Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on day one, but in fact she was ready to give in to George Bush on this critical issue," Obama said.
On the Republican side, John McCain, the party’s presumptive nominee, won an endorsement on Tuesday from former Ohio Congressman Rob Portman, who is mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate. Portman called McCain a champion for fiscal responsibility, pro-growth policies and the military.
“No one is a more committed advocate for our men and women in uniform, and no one understands better the threats America faces,” Portman, a former budget chief for President George W. Bush, said in a statement released by the McCain campaign. He later told The Associated Press he does not see himself as the Arizona senator’s potential running mate.
McCain on Tuesday quickly denounced the comments of a conservative radio talk show host who while warming up a campaign crowd referred repeatedly to Barack Hussein Obama and suggested the Democrat was an unsavory politician.
Hussein is Obama’s middle name, but talk show host Bill Cunningham used it three times as he addressed the crowd before the likely Republican nominee’s appearance.
“I did not know about these remarks, but I take responsibility for them. I repudiate them,” McCain said. “My entire campaign I have treated Senator Obama and Senator (Hillary Rodham) Clinton with respect. I will continue to do that throughout this campaign.”
McCain called both Democrats “honourable Americans” and said, “I want to dissociate myself with any disparaging remarks that may have been said about them.”
False rumours about Obama having Islamic ties are circulating on the Internet and some opponents have used his middle name to try to link him with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Obama currently has 1,372 delegates to Clinton’s 1,274. A total of 2,025 are needed to secure the Democratic nomination at the party’s convention in late August in Denver.
The Republican race is considered settled in favor of McCain, the veteran Arizona senator and a former Vietnam prisoner of war. (Reuters & AP)
Obama and Clinton clash in testy Ohio debate