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Politeness Rules in Austin -- at First

Seok-Kiew Koay of Dallas shows her support for Hillary Clinton before the Democratic presidential debate in Austin on Thursday. (Bloomberg News)

Updated 9:16 p.m.
By Jonathan Weisman
AUSTIN -- With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton hoping for a game-changing moment, tonight's CNN-Univision debate is serving as an elusive target.

Her rival, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is sitting on his delegate lead, emphasizing what his policy proposals have in common with Clinton's and avoiding fights.

"Senator Clinton and I have been talking about these issues for the last 13 months. We both offer detailed proposals to try to deal with them. Some of them are the same. Some we have differences of opinion," he said. "But I think we both recognize that these problems have to be dealt with and that we have seen an administration over the last seven years that has failed to address them."

"I would agree with a lot that Senator Obama just said," Clinton fired back, "because it is the Democratic agenda. The wealthy and the well connected have had a president for the past seven years. I think it's time the rest of America have a president."

That opening exchange set the tone for a debate marked much more by agreement than by disagreement, more by camaraderie than by combat. On immigration and on economic policies, the two candidates were completely in sync. With Texas's Hispanic vote in mind, they both advocated a comprehensive approach to overhauling immigration laws, with an emphasis on cracking down on employers, not illegal immigrants. Clinton even appeared to back away from her Senate vote to establish a vast border fence with Mexico, saying the Bush administration was moving toward a fence that would divide communities.

"There is a smart way to protect our borders, and there is a dumb way to protect our borders," she said. "And what I learned last night ... is that the University of Texas at Brownsville would have part of its campus cut off. This is the kind of absurdity that we're getting from this administration."

On economics, Clinton moved toward Obama's more populist tone. While he repeated his call to renegotiate trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, she advocated the establishment of a new "trade prosecutor" to make sure labor, environmental and safety standards are enforced on foreign trade partners.

Clinton did repeat her charge that Obama's campaign has been long on rhetoric while his record is short on accomplishments.

"Words are important and words matter, but actions speak louder than words," she said.

But Obama parried the charge, saying her campaign entreaty of "Let's get real" is akin to suggesting his supporters "are somehow delusional."

"We shouldn't be spending our time tearing each other down," he said. "We should be building the country up."

Clinton zipped off perhaps the best zinger of the night when she went on offense over allegations that Barack Obama has plagiarized some of the best lines of his speeches.

"I think that if your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words. That's, I think, a very simple proposition," she said to applause, adding, "and you know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox."

The response? A collective gasp and a smattering of boos.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 21, 2008; 9:10 PM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Barack Obama , Hillary Rodham Clinton , The Debates  
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