MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton broke into bitter verbal warfare Monday night, challenging one another's honesty in the most heated debate of their year-long campaign.
They clashed over who really fought Ronald Reagan, their relationships with special interests, and how they would pay for their proposals. Throughout, they stared at one another icily, raised their voices and interrupted one another, all while repeatedly accusing one another in strikingly personal terms.
"Not factually accurate," Obama said of Clinton's charges against him. "The same typical politics."
"You never take responsibility for any vote," Clinton responded at another point, drawing boos from some of the Democrats watching at the Palace Theater in Myrtle Beach.
Relegated to the status of bystander for several tense moments, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards eventually jumped to challenge the two warring rivals.
"This kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get health care?" Edwards said to applause. "How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?"
The jarring clash came as New York Sen. Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama grapple for advantage in a very close competition for the Democratic presidential nomination — and as their campaigns grow increasingly personal in the search for any advantage.
An added and perhaps aggravating factor: the growing role of former President Bill Clinton attacking Obama, an unprecedented spectacle in a party primary.
Obama noted the challenge — and perhaps the strain — of competing against both Clintons, saying, "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."
The Illinois senator clearly was waiting for an opportunity to take on Clinton after weeks in which their surrogates escalated the sniping.
He jumped on a question about Clinton comments that his budget numbers didn't add up, using it to launch a broadside at her and her husband.
"What she said wasn't true," Obama said. "We account for every single dollar we propose.
"This, I think, is one of the things that's happened during the course of this campaign; that there is a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate."
He objected particularly to the way the Clintons hammered him for saying recently that Ronald Reagan transformed American politics, insisting he was stating the obvious and not praising Reagan.
While he fought Reagan's policies as a community organizer in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago, he said, "you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart."
Clinton countered that she was fighting Reagan while Obama was representing a contributor "in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago."
On Iraq, Clinton ripped Obama as a flip-flopper, saying he voted to finance the war after initially opposing it. "You were voting to fund the war time after time after time," Clinton said.
Clinton also worked to turn Obama's complaints against him, suggesting it signaled weakness for a candidate who wants to take on the Republicans.
"I'm used to taking the incoming fire," she said. "But when you get into this arena, you can't expect to have a hands-off attitude about your record, and it is perfectly fair to have comparisons and contrasts."
In between sniping, they sparred over substantive issues, from the economy and trade relations to health care.
They jostled over the best way to stimulate the economy. Clinton touted her $110 billion economic stimulus proposal, saying $70 billion would go to easing the mortgage crisis.
She said tax rebates being discussed in Washington would leave out 50 million to 70 million people who don't pay income taxes, and that she'd also send checks to them.
Obama urged tax rebates to those who make less than $75,000 a year. "Those are the people who will spend the money right away," he said.
He also tweaked Clinton, saying she didn't originally include tax rebates in her proposal and only recently caught up to him on the idea.
Edwards added that U.S. workers need protections from bad trade deals, that he didn't trust President Bush to enforce them.
A smiling Obama asserted that, "in a year's time, it'll be me who's enforcing them."
They also sparred over their legislative records. Obama challenged Clinton as hypocritical for voting for a bankruptcy bill, then saying she was happy it did not pass.
Clinton and Edwards slammed Obama for voting "present" on 130 controversial measures in the Illinois legislature, all but calling him a political coward.
All three suggested that Arizona Sen. John McCain is likely to win the Republican nomination, each casting themselves as most able to beat him in November.
Edwards said he could compete best against McCain in states such as South Carolina that Democrats often write off. Obama said he'd challenge McCain for rural votes, noting his strong showing in rural Nevada in Saturday's caucuses. Clinton said she'd be the toughest rival to McCain on national security issues.