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Obama And Clinton Square Off In Presidential Debate

Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were both on the defensive Wednesday night during a debate broadcast by ABC News (from the Constitution Center) in Philadelphia, their last exchange before next Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

The tone of both Democrats was generally polite, but there were plenty of jabs thrown during the course of the debate about recent statements that have caused both contenders problems. Senator Obama said Senator Clinton had beat to death comments he made about the bitterness of small town voters in Pennsylvania who cling to guns and religion out of economic frustration.

Barack Obama: "During the course of the last few days, she has said I am an elitist, out of touch, condescending. Let me be absolutely clear, it would be pretty hard for me to be condescending towards people of faith because I am a person of faith, and have done more than most other campaigns in reach out specifically to people of faith."

But Senator Clinton had her turn on the defensive as well. One voter on a video clip during the debate asked Clinton about her now famous 1996 visit to Bosnia as first lady and why she said her party came under sniper fire and ran for cover when news footage showed a much calmer reception.

Hilary Clinton: "On a couple of occasions in the last couple of weeks, I just said some things that were not in keeping with what I knew to be the case and what I had written about in my book, and you know, I am embarrassed by it, I have apologized for it, I have said it was a mistake. And it is something, I hope, you can look over."

Both candidates said they thought the other could defeat the presumed Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, in the general election in November. But both Democrats also declined to pledge that they would ask the loser of the nomination fight to be his or her vice-presidential running mate. Clinton insisted she would be the stronger Democratic nominee against McCain because she has fought off Republican attacks in the past.

Hilary Clinton: "You know, I wish the Republicans would apologize for the disaster of the Bush-Cheney years and not run anybody, just say it is time for the Democrats to go back into the White House. Unfortunately, they do not seem to be willing to do that, so we know that they are going to be out there full force."

Obama countered that his record of unifying voters would make him the better Democratic nominee.

Barack Obama: "There is no doubt that the Republicans will attack either of us. What I have been able to display during the course of this primary is that I can take a punch. I have taken some pretty good ones from Senator Clinton."

Both Democrats stood by their plans to begin troop withdrawals from Iraq shortly after taking office. And both contenders also had tough words for Iran, saying they would do all they could to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Clinton also said she would launch massive retaliation against Iran if it used nuclear weapons to attack Israel. Obama said the U.S. would take what he called appropriate action in the same circumstance.

Clinton continues to hold a lead in public opinion polls in Pennsylvania in advance of Tuesday's primary, but her lead has dwindled in recent weeks. Obama continues to lead in the overall delegate count for the Democratic nomination with ten more contests to go before the primary season ends in early June. The Democrats hold their national nominating convention in late August, followed by the Republicans a week later.