GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Hillary Clinton tore into Barack Obama in a spirited debate Saturday night, 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.
Illinois Sen. 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."
John Edwards jumped in too: "I didn't hear these kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead," the former North Carolina senator 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, and looked miffed Saturday when Obama and Edwards hit back at her hard.
Clinton started the fracas.
"I don't think you make change by calling for it or demanding it," she said. Obama, she charged, "could have a pretty good debate with himself." She listed what she called a litany of different positions on health care.
Obama stayed calm. "We do have a philosophical difference," he said. They argued over the details of their rival health-care programs, but the tone of their jousting was more revealing than their policy conflicts.
Not all the exchanges were so 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.
At another point 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.
"It's easy to be cynical and say it can't be done" because Washington is designed to frustrate action, Obama said. But there have been moments in U.S. history when the public mood demanded fundamental reform, he said, and "I think we're in one of those moments right now....I'm running for president because I want to say, 'Yes we can.'"