LOS ANGELES – Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama set aside personal hostilities here Thursday night but sharply disagreed on who has the better combination of leadership and experience to defeat Republicans in November and lead the country as president.
Heading toward a critical round of primaries and caucuses on Tuesday, the two remaining contenders for the Democratic nomination focused their strongest words on Republicans.
For almost two hours, Obama and Clinton examined their differences on the Iraq war, health care, immigration and governing style, with Clinton emphasizing her lengthy resume and experience and Obama challenging her about judgment and the ability to inspire the country.
“It is imperative that we have a president, starting on Day One, who can begin to solve our problems, tackle these challenges and seize the opportunities that I think await,” Clinton said.
“Senator Clinton, I think, fairly has claimed that she’s got the experience on Day One,” Obama later replied. “And part of the argument that I’m making in this campaign is that it is important to be right on Day One.”
There were occasional barbs, but nothing that approached the candidates’ war of words in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last week. When Thursday’s debate ended, the two rose and exchanged private comments amid smiles and laughter.
“We’re having such a good time,” Clinton said toward the end of the forum. “We are. We are. We’re having a wonderful time.”
“Yes, absolutely,” Obama agreed.
The Kodak Theatre, site of the Academy Awards ceremony in the heart of Hollywood, served as the venue for Thursday’s forum and the pre-debate spectacle on the streets outside rivaled Oscar night. Hollywood stars scrambled to get what was considered one of the hottest tickets in town.
On the subject of the Iraq war – arguably the issue that has shaped the course of the Democratic contest – Obama made a crisp if familiar argument: that his judgment about the invasion reflected a broader skill for understanding the world. Obama also said his consistent opposition to the war would make him a stronger candidate in the general election.
“You know, Senator Clinton mentioned the issue of gravitas and judgment,” he said. “I think it is much easier for us to have the argument when we have a nominee who says, ‘I always thought this was a bad idea, this was a bad strategy. It was not just a problem of execution.’ ” Clinton countered that she had believed that sending weapons inspectors back into Iraq at the time Congress approved the war resolution in 2002 was a “credible idea,” repeating her contention that she did not know that Bush was going to invade.
She argued that she believed in “coercive diplomacy,” but when faced with repeated questions about her decision not to support an alternate measure, she sought to focus on comparing their Senate records.
“I certainly respect Senator Obama making his speech in 2002 against the war,” she said. “And then, when he came to the Senate, we’ve had the same policy because we were both confronting the same reality of trying to deal with the consequences of George Bush’s action.”
Early on, the pair sparred over health care, each citing it as an area in which they have policy differences. They dwelled on health insurance, focusing on details and differing on how to bring the most people into a national insurance network. Still, on a night when civility reigned, Obama said that their health-care proposals were about 95 percent similar.