AUSTIN — Hillary Clinton came out swinging half way through a televised Texas showdown with rival Barack Obama, accusing him of stealing material for his speeches and promoting a supposedly "universal" health care plan that will leave 15 million Americans without coverage.
"If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your words,'' Clinton said, repeating allegations that he stole lines from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. "Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in. It's change you can Xerox.'' That remark drew boos from the crowd.
Obama has acknowledged using some of Patrick's language, but noted that the Democrat is co-chairman of his campaign and had suggested that he use the language. He called the criticism "silly.''
As for her attack on his health care plan, Obama shot back at Clinton over her botched attempt in the 1990s, as first lady, to overhaul the health-care system. He said she failed in part because she "went behind closed doors" instead of opening up the policy debate.
"The notion that somehow I'm interested in leaving 15 million people without health insurance is simply not true,'' he said. However, independent health analysts have said that his approach would be likely to result in about that many people failing to obtain insurance.
Their clashes came mid-way through the debate. Until then it appeared the two might stage a 90 minute love-fest, emphasizing how much they agree with each other on most everything. CNN political correspondent John King expressed astonishment at their "polite, substantive discourse,'' saying it belied their rivalry on the campaign trail.
Clinton went for the emotional jugular in her closing statement, saying the "hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.
"I resolved at a very young age that I'd been blessed and that I was called by my faith and by my upbringing to do what I could to give others the same opportunities and blessings that I took for granted,'' she said. "That's what gets me up in the morning. That's what motivates me in this campaign."
Earlier, the two candidates dueled on the U.S. relationship with Cuba. Obama promised to meet without preconditions with acting Cuban President Raul Castro, widely expected to take over from his brother Fidel, who recently announced he was stepping down after 49 years in power.
"I would meet without preconditions, although Senator Clinton is right that there has to be preparation,'' he said. " It is very important for us to make sure that there was an agenda, and on that agenda was human rights, releasing of political prisoners, opening up the press. And that preparation might take some time."
He said he would take steps, starting with loosening remittances of money from family members to their Cuban relatives and relaxed travel restrictions, and hope they led toward eventual normalization of relations.
Clinton said she would meet with Raul Castro only once certain conditions are met.
"I would not meet with him until there was evidence that change was happening, because I think it's important that they demonstrate clearly that they are committed to change the direction,'' Clinton said. "Then I think, you know, something like diplomatic encounters and negotiations over specifics could take place."
Clinton sidestepped whether she believes Obama is not qualified to be commander in chief, as she has suggested in stump speeches, and instead defended her own credentials. Obama said simply: "I wouldn't be running if I didn't think I was ready to be commander in chief."
He also took a dig at Clinton for voting to authorize the Iraq war:
"On the war in Iraq, I believe I showed the judgment to be commander in chief,'' he said. "I think Sen. Clinton was wrong in her judgments ... It has diverted attention from Afghanistan.''
Clinton's turn toward an aggressive tone in her 19th televised debate was no surprise. After losing ten states in a row to Obama, she badly needs a momentum shift.
The live CNN-Univision debate was held before a sold-out crowd packed into a gym on the University of Texas campus. Texas holds a primary on March 4.
On most major issues, the two candidates agreed, and they unloaded on the Bush administration's tax policies and his effort to build a massive fence on the U.S.-Mexico border -- highly unpopular in South Texas.
Both senators voted for the 2006 Secure Fence Act but say the way it's being implemented has been flawed.
Clinton said plans to place the fence on a college campus in the border town of Brownsville illustrated "the kind of absurdity that we're getting from this administration.''
"The Bush administration has gone off the deep end,'' she said. She said a physical barrier might be appropriate in some areas, but she prefers to use high-technology and more border guards to a fence.
Obama said that he and Clinton "almost entirely agree'' on the issue. They also expressed support for immigration reform that lets undocumented workers here now eventually get U.S. citizenship, and said the next White House needs to build better ties with Mexico.
"President Bush has dropped the ball (because) he was so obsessed with Iraq," Obama said.
The high stakes debate in Austin, a liberal enclave in otherwise conservative Texas, drew tremendous interest from political activists and curiosity seekers. The Texas Democratic Party received more than 43,000 requests for a mere 100 tickets that were given away in a drawing.
With 228 Democratic delegates, the largest single cache left, Texas has become a major battleground, and, like the March 4 election in Ohio, it is a must-win contest for Clinton.
(Root and Moritz report for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. R.A. Dyer contributed to this report.)