MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama accused each other of repeatedly and deliberately distorting the truth for political gain Monday night in a highly personal, finger-wagging debate that ranged from the war in Iraq to Bill Clinton’s role in the campaign.
Obama told the former first lady he was helping unemployed workers on the streets of Chicago when “you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.”
Moments later, Clinton said that she was fighting against misguided Republican policies “when you were practicing law and representing your contributor … in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago.”
Obama seemed particularly irritated at the former president, whom he accused in absentia of uttering a series of distortions to aid his wife’s presidential effort.
“I’m here. He’s not,” she snapped.
“Well, I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” Obama countered.
The two rivals, joined by former Sen. John Edwards, debated at close quarters five days before the South Carolina primary – and 15 days before the equivalent of a nationwide primary across 20 states that will go a long way toward settling the battle for the party’s nomination.
Clinton was the national front-runner for months in the race, but Obama won the kick-off Iowa caucuses three weeks ago, knocking her off-stride. She recovered quickly, winning the New Hampshire primary in an upset, and on Saturday won the popular vote in the Nevada caucuses while Obama won one more delegate than she.
The Democratic electorate in South Carolina is expected to be roughly 50 percent black, an evident advantage for Obama in a historic race that matches a black man against a woman.
Even in the superheated atmosphere of the primary, the statements and exchanges between Clinton and Obama were unusually acrimonious. The debate came as the two campaigns continued to complain about dirty politics and disenfranchisement of voters in last Saturday’s Nevada caucuses.
Obama suggested the Clintons were both practicing the kind of political tactics that had alienated voters.
“There was a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton as well as her husband that are not factually accurate,” Obama said. “I think that part of what people are looking for right now is someone who is going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we’ve seen in Washington.”
Clinton countered: “I believe your record and what you say should matter.”
Edwards, who badly trails his two rivals, tried to stay above the fray while pleading for equal time.
“Are there three people in this debate, not two?” he asked.
“We have got to understand, this is not about us personally. It’s about what we are trying to do for this country,” Edwards said to applause from the audience.
With the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a backdrop, the candidates also addressed questions of racial equality.
Clinton and Edwards compared their records on helping to alleviate poverty, while Obama was asked if he agreed with the famed black novelist Toni Morrison who dubbed Bill Clinton “the first black president.”
Obama praised the former president’s “affinity” with black people but also drew laughs.
“I would have to investigate more, Bill’s dancing abilities and some of this other stuff before I accurately judged whether he was, in fact, a brother,” Obama said.
“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Clinton joked.