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Democrats Bring Debate Fireworks to S.C.

The three leading Democratic presidential candidates drew sharp contrasts on both policy and personal matters in tonight's debate in South Carolina, engaging in the sort of spirited back and forth that had been largely absent from previous gatherings.

Clinton and Obama weren't shy about taking each other on directly during Monday night's debate in South Carolina. (AFP/Getty Images)

The first hour of the debate, which was hosted by CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, was dominated by clashes between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama over a panoply of issues -- from health care to the appropriate strategy for turning around the U.S. economy.

But it was disputes over the tenor and tone of the campaign that served as emotional flash points between Obama and Clinton.

Following a protracted debate over the appropriateness of former president Bill Clinton's role in the campaign and whether or not Obama had praised former president Ronald Reagan, Obama launched a line that surely made opposition researchers everywhere slap five. While he was serving as a community organizer in Chicago, said Obama, Clinton was serving as a "corporate lawyer on the board of Wal-Mart."

Clinton matched Obama's howitzer with one of her own, noting that while she was fighting Reagan's policies Obama was "practicing law and representing your contributor Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago "-- a reference to indicted real estate developer Antoin Rezko.

That exchange was the most heated of the night but far from the only time that Clinton and Obama disagreed vehemently and, often, in personal terms. They exchanged blows over Obama's "present" votes in the Illinois legislature, their respective health care plans and (again) on the appropriate role for Bill Clinton on the campaign trail.

"It's hard to have a straight up debate with you because you never take responsibility for any vote," Clinton said at one point. Obama insisted that the Clintons had continually distorted his record; "I have been troubled by the degree to which my record is not accurately portrayed," he said.

Even as they battled back and forth, Clinton and Obama sought to pivot to the messages they believe have led to their successes in the campaign to date.

For Clinton, that is the idea that she alone can hit the ground running on day one in the Oval Office to reverse much of the work done by the current administration. "Politics is not a game," she said toward the end of the debate, echoing a favorite line from her stump speech.

For Obama, that message revolves around the need -- and his ability -- to bring about fundamental change in how politics in this country is conducted. "I am absolutely convinced that black, Latino, and Asian people want to move beyond our divisions and they want to join together in order to create a movement for change in this country," Obama said.

John Edwards
At times Monday night, John Edwards seemed like an afterthought on the debate stage, as Clinton and Obama turned on each other again and again. (AP Photo)

While the debate was dominated by the back and forth between Obama and Clinton, John Edwards made the most of the time he was given -- seeking to cast himself as a voice of reason amid the hard-edged back and forth between the two front-runners.

Edwards also served as an arbiter of sorts between the duo, siding mostly with Clinton and against Obama but occasionally flipping that script as well. Edwards seemed to score best when he argued that he was the lone candidate who could take the fight to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) across the country, not ceding a dozen or more states to Republicans as happened in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races.

The ferocity of the debate was the latest sign of the raised stakes in the Democratic presidential race. After months of genteel campaigning, the results of the first three states -- Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada -- showed a divided electorate not yet ready to crown a presumptive nominee.

All three candidates sought to make their case tonight, not only to the crowd in the room and the broader South Carolina electorate but also to a national audience -- many of whom will vote on Feb. 5 when 22 states hold either caucuses or primaries. This Saturday's South Carolina primary is sure to be a significant stop on the way to Feb. 5, but it was clear from tonight's debate that this campaign is going to get even more intense over the next 15 days.

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By Chris Cillizza  |  January 21, 2008; 10:37 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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