MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton brawled Monday night during a tension-filled debate here in advance of Saturday's South Carolina primary, where John Edwards joined with Clinton in pummeling Obama about his present votes while a state senator in Illinois.
In the most bitter, personal, finger-wagging clash yet between Obama and Clinton in the nearly yearlong presidential campaign, Obama for the first time slammed Clinton as a one-time "corporate lawyer" who served on Wal-Mart's board while he was working as an organizer on the streets of Chicago.
Obama brought up Clinton's tenure on Wal-Mart - many Democratic activists consider the retail giant anti-labor - in the context of defending comments he made about former President Ronald Reagan being a transformative figure who lured Democrats into the GOP during an interview with a Nevada newspaper.
That opened the door for Clinton to hurl back that while she was "fighting against" Reagan's "ideas," Obama was "practicing law and representing your contributor, [Tony] Rezko in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago."
Clinton's reference was to a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that revealed legal work Obama did for a major political patron, Rezko, currently facing trial on federal fraud charges. Obama took campaign donations from Rezko even as Rezko's low-income housing empire was collapsing, leaving many African-American families in buildings with problems," the Sun-Times reported. Obama replied that he did only about five hours of work for Rezko, and Clinton did not bring it up again.
Clinton first and then, unexpectedly, Edwards, ganged up on Obama over some 130 present votes he took as a state senator. Clinton has been dogging Obama on those votes from Iowa through New Hampshire and Nevada.
"Sen. Obama, it's hard to have a straight-up debate with you because you never take responsibility for any vote," Clinton said, earning boos from the audience. "That's not yes, that's not no, that's maybe," Clinton said.
Turning to Obama, Edwards said it was "important" whether "you are willing to take hard positions . . . what I didn't hear was an explanation.''
"In Illinois, often times you vote present in order to indicate you had problems with a bill that otherwise you might be willing to vote for," Obama said.
The fireworks came in a debate co-sponsored by CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute on the national holiday celebrating the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a state where race is likely to be a factor and half the primary vote is expected to be African-American.
Obama is heading into the South Carolina primary as a favorite and Clinton, already looking ahead to the Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday" contests, was going to other states after the debate, to return to the Palmetto State on Thursday night.
For a short time in the two-hour encounter between Obama, the first viable African-American contender; Clinton, the first viable female and Edwards the white male, things cooled off when the discussion turned to race.
Noting that former President Bill Clinton is often called the "first black president," Obama was asked if he shared that opinion.
First, said Obama, he would have to investigate Bill Clinton's "dance abilities" to more accurately judge "if he is a brother." Clinton said that could be arranged.