CLEVELAND — New York Sen. Hillary Clinton came out swinging against rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday night, challenging his honesty in a testy debate that offered her one last chance to slow his momentum before make-or-break Democratic presidential primary contests next week.
Clinton accused Obama of spreading "false, misleading and discredited" information about her plan for health care reform. She said his claims about her stands on trade were "disturbing" and wrong.
He responded in kind, saying his charges were accurate while insisting that he has suffered silently through a long negative barrage from her. "We haven't whined about it because I understand that's the nature of these campaigns," he said.
The stakes were enormous as the two Democratic contenders faced off for perhaps the final time of their year-long campaign. It was also their last debate before critical primaries next Tuesday in Ohio and Texas, where Clinton is fighting for her political life. After losing 11 straight contests since "Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5, Clinton aides call Ohio and Texas must-wins and concede that losses there could force her to quit the race.
She is striving to hold her narrowing lead in Ohio, still 11 points ahead in one survey but half what it was two weeks ago. She's also lost ground in Texas, where she had led but now is neck and neck with the surging Obama.
In a sign of the increased tension between them, the two candidates rarely looked at one another during their most heated exchanges.
At one point, Clinton suggested that she has been the victim of unfair treatment — and that Obama has been favored by the media — because she's often put on the defensive by being asked the first question in the 20 debates they've now endured over 10 months.
She jokingly asked whether the media moderators might want to get Obama a pillow, drawing audience groans as she referred to last weekend's Saturday Night Live television sketch lampooning how the media fawn over Obama.
On health care, Clinton insisted that she alone would seek to expand insurance to all of the nation's 47 million uninsured by mandating coverage.
Obama has said that means she would force people to buy insurance even if they couldn't afford it, drawing Clinton's heated complaint that the charge was inaccurate.
She said people that would be automatically enrolled in health insurance at their job or when they had any contact with a government office. She did not say how or whether that would be enforced.
The two clashed as well over their records on the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, a hot issue in a state where many workers blame trade for the loss of 235,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000 alone.
"I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning," Clinton said. "I didn't have a public position on it, because I was part of the administration, but when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic. I've said it was flawed."
But Obama did support the deal, she said, noting that he "told the farmers of Illinois a couple of years ago that he wanted more trade agreements."
"It is inaccurate for Sen. Clinton to say that she's always opposed NAFTA," Obama countered. "In her campaign for Senate, she said that NAFTA, on balance, had been good for New York and good for America. I disagree with that."
He went on to say that while he did support trade in the speech to the Illinois farm group, he also said the trade deals should take into account better their impact on U.S. communities.
Both vowed to renegotiate the deal to add stronger labor and environment safeguards.
They also vied over which one is better prepared for the presidency.
Clinton referred to her experience both in the White House and the Congress.
Obama insisted, however, that Clinton cannot claim both the benefits of her years as first lady while also disavowing all the unpopular policies of her husband's administration, such as NAFTA.
Both candidates were put on the defensive by MSNBC hosts Tim Russert and Brian Williams. At one point, Obama insisted that "I am absolutely clear that hope is not enough" to achieve major change in Washington, but also insisted that to achieve change requires mobilizing the American people behind goals, and there's "nothing romantic or silly about that."
For her part, Clinton was pressed on why she won't release her joint tax returns filed with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and she promised that she will, but not before Tuesday's primaries because she's so busy.
Responding to a question, Obama said he did not court his recent endorsement by Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan, a known anti-Semite, and that he denounced Farrakhan's record.
Clinton pounced, saying she rejected support from an anti-Semitic group in her 2000 New York Senate campaign. "There's a difference between denouncing and rejecting," she said. Affirming Obama's sincerety, she added: "We've got to be even stronger."
"I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting," Obama said. "But if the word reject Sen. Clinton feels is stronger than the word denounce, then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce" Farrakhan's endorsement.