PHILADELPHIA — In the opening round of a Democratic debate Tuesday, White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) downplayed the expectations he helped raise over whether he will be more aggressive taking on front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
“I think some of this stuff gets overhyped,” Obama said. “In fact, I think this has been the most hyped fight since Rocky fought Apollo Creed, although the amazing thing is I’m Rocky in this situation.”
In substance, the two-hour debate on the campus of Drexel University broadcast on MSNBC early on focused on Iran and the threat it poses as a potential nuclear power. The Democrats pledged to do all they could — without being specific — to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The drama of the evening was over how much Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) were willing to rough up Clinton, after telegraphing their intended punches for the past several days. New Mexico Gov. Richardson said he was bothered by this “holier than thou” attitude against Clinton.
“We need to be positive,” he said. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said Democrats need a nominee who is “electable” in November 2008 — but he did not mention Clinton — whose history as a polarizing figure plays into her rivals’ suggestions that she is unelectable.
Edwards charged that Clinton could not be an agent for change. “Sen. Clinton says that she believes she can be the candidate for change, but she defends a broken system that’s corrupt in Washington, D.C.."
Clinton, however, did not need much rescuing. Clinton deflected suggestions Obama made in a New York Times interview that she was sounding Republican.
“I don’t think the Republicans got the message that I’m voting and sounding like them. If you watched their debate last week, I seemed to be the topic of great conversation and consternation, and that’s for a reason, because I have stood against George Bush and his failed policies.”
Clinton talked about Republicans and their “constant obsession with me” saying, “We have got to turn the page on George Bush and Dick Cheney. In fact we have to throw the whole book away.”
The “turn-the-page” line — an Obama standard on the stump — triggered a stepped-up response from Obama. “I’m glad that Hillary took the phrase ‘turn the page.’ It’s a good one,” he said. “But this is an example of not turning the page.”
Obama was referring to the reluctance of Clinton to press the National Archives to release her first lady papers at the Clinton Library.
“Not my decision to make,” she said.
Obama's retort: “Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that’s a fight they’re very comfortable having. It is the fight that we’ve been through since the ’90s. What we don’t need is another eight years of bickering.”
The name of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a GOP presidential front-runner, was invoked repeatedly.
Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) said, “I’m not running against Hillary Clinton. I'm running to lead the free world. . . . And the irony is Rudy — Rudy Giuliani, probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency, is here talking about any of the people here. . . . Think about it. Rudy Giuliani. There’s —there’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11. I mean, there’s nothing else.”