MANCHESTER, N.H. — Democratic presidential candidates sparred, sometimes intensely, over who among them was the true change agent, while their Republican counterparts held a virtual tea party Saturday night, as both groups held back-to-back debates just days before New Hampshire's Tuesday primary.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton went on the attack, challenging Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards on their records and insisting that her life proves she can achieve change while they just talk about it. They came back at her with equal zeal, double-teaming her at times.
Republicans, on the other hand, basically agreed with each other on almost everything, except that Arizona Sen. John McCain couldn't hide his contempt for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's record of reversing positions on fundamental issues. Here are summaries of both debates:
Clinton tore into Obama in a spirited debate, accusing her rival of changing positions often, notably on health care.
"As the AP described it, he could have a pretty good debate with himself," Clinton said.
Obama hit right back, suggesting that the AP had been "quoting some of your folks, Hillary," and chiding everyone not to "distort each other's records as Election Day approaches here in New Hampshire."
Edwards jumped in too: "I didn't hear these kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead," he said.
"I've been in hostage negotiations that were a lot more civil than this," quipped New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
The clash between the four Democrats was their first since Obama trounced Clinton in Thursday's Iowa caucuses, and the last before New Hampshire voters cast the nation's first secret ballots for presidential nominees on Tuesday.
Obama is leading narrowly in many New Hampshire polls; Clinton had counted on winning the two early states to create an aura of inevitability.
Instead, she's fighting for her political life, but not all the exchanges were hostile.
At one point, Clinton was asked why people seemed to like Obama more than her.
"Well, that hurts my feelings," she said, smiling in a self-deprecating way. The audience laughed.
"But I'll try to go on. He's very likeable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad."
"You're likeable enough," Obama said quietly.
Later, however, after Edwards and Obama bragged about how much they've challenged special interests and achieved change over the years, Clinton interrupted:
"Can we have a reality break for a minute?" she said. She challenged Obama again for voting for an energy bill containing tax breaks for special interests.
"Words are not action. And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action. We have to translate talk into action," Clinton said.
She insisted she is the candidate most able to achieve change, and noted that "having our first woman president is a huge change."
While the Democrats sparred over domestic issues, most of their differences were more of tone, nuance and resumes. They all want to end the war in Iraq. They all want aggressive programs to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. They all want to extend health insurance to everyone. They disagreed mainly on who would best be able to do it.
Clinton said her life experience shows she can do the hard work necessary to succeed. Edwards said he's been fighting special interests all his life as a trial lawyer and public official. Richardson stressed his ability as a negotiator and executive experience as a Cabinet official and governor. Obama stressed his ability to inspire people to get involved and build diverse coalitions to demand change.
Republican presidential candidates turned to critique the one prominent Republican not onstage with them — President Bush and his foreign policy.
Candidates took turns differing with Bush, particularly on his initial Iraq war strategy, which most of them called weak and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called "arrogant." Most hedged their criticism, however, with praise and defense of the rest of Bush's defense strategy and his conduct of the war on terror.
Polls showed McCain leading in New Hampshire, followed by Romney. They also pointed to a four-way battle for third place among Huckabee, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
One familiar point of tension came over illegal immigration — Romney again criticized McCain for backing a plan that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States. He called it "amnesty," a red-flag word to Republican conservatives.
"They should not be given a special right to stay here," Romney said.
McCain countered that his proposal was not amnesty because it would force illegal immigrants to pay penalties and earn citizenship.
"You can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads and they still won't be true," McCain said.
McCain taunted Romney repeatedly with similarly sharp-edged comments, tweaking him as someone who changes his position on issues opportunistically, implying that Romney is unprincipled.
"I agree that you are the candidate of change, ha-ha-ha," McCain told Romney with open derision.
Romney responded with pleas that the candidates not employ "personal barbs" but rather debate issues on their merits.
On foreign policy, Huckabee defended his assertion that Bush's doctrine has been arrogant. He cited former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's refusal to heed military advice and send more troops to Iraq as well as Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive strikes.
"There were times when we gave the world the impression that we were going to ignore what they thought or what they felt, and we were going to do whatever it is we wanted to do," Huckabee said.
McCain reminded voters that he was the only candidate who defied Rumsfeld early in the Iraq war and urged more troops at the risk of appearing disloyal to Bush. "I'm the only one here that disagreed at the time," McCain said. "And I'm the only one at the time that said we've got to employ a new strategy."
Yet he also lauded Bush, saying he deserves credit for re-organizing the government and averting a second terrorist attack since 2001.
Giuliani praised Bush's foreign policy generally, but he too gently criticized Bush for not building up the military, cut during the 1990s after the Cold War.
"President Bush has never made up for that. We need at least 10 more combat brigades. We need our Marines at 200,000. We need a 300-ship navy. This president should do it now. If I'm president, I'll do it immediately," Giuliani said.
(Margaret Talev contributed.)