JOHNSTON, Iowa — The Democratic presidential candidates made nice for the television cameras during a polite debate Thursday — while the two top candidates dealt offstage with the latest fallout from their close contest for the nomination.
The 90-minute debate was the last chance for the six major candidates to face one another before voting starts in Iowa on Jan. 3.
With three candidates neck and neck and neck for first place in the state — Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina — none dared personally attack a rival for fear of a backlash from Iowa voters. Thus this "debate" did little to alter the shape of the campaign.
Off camera, however, the campaigns continued to wrestle, as Clinton's campaign looked for ways to slow Obama's momentum, which has washed away Clinton's narrow lead in Iowa and her larger lead in New Hampshire.
A day after Clinton's national campaign co-chairman called attention to Obama's admitted use of illegal drugs as a teen, Clinton apologized to her Senate colleague.
The apology came Thursday morning as both prepared to board their private jets at Washington's Reagan National Airport to fly to Iowa for the debate. Obama strategist David Axelrod said that Clinton sent an aide over first to say she wanted to speak to Obama, then she walked over herself.
Clinton, who earlier had called this the "fun part" of the campaign, told Obama she didn't authorize or approve of the comments from her co-chairman, Bill Shaheen.
While Axelrod said that Obama accepted the apology, he said the senator also delivered a strong message to Clinton.
"What Senator Obama expressed to Senator Clinton is that it's important we send a message to our campaign up and down the line: It's not fun, this is not sport, to try and attack opponents in these kinds of ways," Axelrod said. "You've got to send that signal from the top."
Later Thursday, Shaheen resigned as Clinton's campaign co-chairman. The campaign issued a statement in his name, which said in part: ""I would like to reiterate that I deeply regret my comments yesterday and say again that they were in no way authorized by Senator Clinton or the Clinton campaign."
The debate offered only one exchange between Clinton and Obama.
When the moderator asked Obama how he, a novice at foreign policy, would foster change when he's relying on advice from several of former President Bill Clinton's foreign-policy advisers, Hillary Clinton spoke up from across the stage.
"I want to hear that," she said, then erupted into loud laughter.
"Well, Hillary," Obama responded, "I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."
Throughout the rest of the debate, the candidates all tended to agree with one another, but drew stark contrasts to Republicans by proposing tax increases on the wealthy and spending cuts for the Pentagon.
Several Democrats said they'd raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans by rescinding the tax cuts they received under President Bush with bipartisan support in Congress.
"I want to restore the tax rates that we had in the '90s," said Clinton. "That means raising taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. I want to keep the middle-class tax cuts."
Obama said he'd close tax loopholes, mentioning one building in the Cayman Islands that's the home address for 12,000 businesses. "Now, that's either the biggest building in the world or the biggest tax scam in the world, and I think we know which one it is," he said.
He said he'd use the cash to pay for a payroll tax cut for those making less than $75,000 a year.
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said he would raise taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent. "You can put more into the government by close to $150 billion in tax cuts going to people who don't need them, will not affect the economy, and they didn't ask for them."
Most would use the higher taxes to finance new government spending, not to reduce the federal budget deficit. Only one candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, said he'd try to balance the federal budget.
"It would be a major priority of mine," Richardson said, adding that he'd cut $73 billion in corporate "welfare" and $57 billion in military spending, end congressional pork-barrel spending and push for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
Others made it a low priority.
"We are not going to be able to dig ourselves out of that hole in one or two years," said Obama.
"Fiscal responsibility is a very high priority for me," Clinton said. But she offered only vague proposals to cut use of private contractors, close unspecified tax loopholes and curb health care costs. "You can't do it in a year; it'll take time," Clinton said.
Biden said he'd cut $20 billion a year from the Pentagon's budget, including the F-22, the Nimitz-class destroyer, a proposed missile defense system and a new atomic weapon. He said he'd use the money for education, health care and the environment as well as to cut the federal deficit.