WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton attacked Barack Obama for working for a Chicago slumlord. Obama said he'd worked as an inner-city organizer while Clinton served on Wal-Mart's board.
That barbed exchange characterized the Democratic presidential candidates' high-profile debate Monday night in Myrtle Beach, S.C. CNN, which broadcast it, said it was the most-watched primary debate ever, with 4.9 million viewers.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, often left out as the two leading Democrats attacked each other, won applause when he objected: "This kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get health care? ... We have got to understand this is not about us personally. It is about what we are trying to do for this country and what we believe in."
Still, Clinton and Obama kept fighting. At one point Obama complained about former President Bill Clinton's heavy campaigning on his wife's behalf: "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."
Hillary Clinton said Obama evades his record: "It's very difficult having a straight-up debate with you because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern."
Obama complained that both Clintons distort his record. Their critiques, he said, "are not factually accurate," and at one point he said, "That is simply not true."
The tone grew more civil in the debate's second hour. Asked about poet Toni Morrison's famous comment that Bill Clinton was America's first black president, Obama paid generous tribute to his "affinity with the African-American community," but added: "... I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill's dancing ability ... before I could accurately judge whether or not he was, in fact, a brother."
"Well, I'm sure that could be arranged," Clinton said as the crowd laughed.
GOP DEBATE FEATURES FIVE NICE WHITE GUYS
Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans couldn't have been nicer to one another when they debated Thursday night at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. They were offered a chance to question one another, and they just lobbed softballs. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani even commented on it: "When Mitt Romney asked me a question, he asked me a very nice question." Giuliani speculated that maybe that means Romney isn't too worried about him anymore; Giuliani's running third in Florida polls. Moderator Tim Russert of NBC said the GOP candidates appeared to have made "a non-aggression" pact. Also debating were John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul.
THOMPSON DROPS OUT
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson dropped out of the presidential sweepstakes on Tuesday after finishing a disappointing third in last Saturday's Republican primary in South Carolina with 16 percent of the vote. Still, that was his best showing yet, which tells you all you need to know about the Thompson campaign. He issued a three-sentence news release announcing it was canceled.
EDWARDS FIGHTS ON
The same day, John Edwards' campaign put out a statement insisting that "he's committed to going all the way to the Democratic convention," despite taking only 4 percent of the vote last Saturday at Nevada's Democratic caucuses. He's expected to finish third in a three-person race this Saturday in his birth-state South Carolina's Democratic primary as well; a McClatchy-MSNBC poll released Thursday found him with only 19 percent support there. He won the state's primary in 2004. Pressure from party leaders is expected to grow for him to quit so that voters can choose between Clinton and Obama on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, and stop inflaming divisions within the party, but so far Edwards has shown no sign that there's any quit in him.
THE ELUSIVE GIULIANI REBOUND
For months, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ignored the early Republican presidential contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina, preferring to make his stand on what he believed to be friendlier soil — big, complex, urbanized states, starting with Florida on Tuesday, where lots of former New Yorkers live.
For the past several weeks Giuliani's virtually lived in Florida, hoping it'll propel him back into the race and prove the wisdom of his "big-state strategy."
The tea leaves don't look so good for him. A Mason-Dixon poll released Thursday showed Giuliani with only 18 percent of the vote, far behind Mitt Romney's 30 percent and John McCain's 26 percent.
Time grows short.
HUCKABEE LOOKS SOUTH
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee campaigned in Georgia this week, not in Florida, where his rivals flocked. He also chose not to put up any TV ads in the Sunshine State, which means he considers it a lost cause. But he's still in it. His campaign is waging a Southern strategy — he'll concentrate on Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas and Missouri. They all vote on Super Tuesday. If a non-Southerner such as Romney, McCain or Giuliani wins the GOP nomination, perhaps a former Southern governor who scores well with voters in the South might be No. 2?
Next week: Floridians of both parties vote Tuesday, but only Republican candidates are competing there. Republicans debate Wednesday night at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Democrats debate Thursday night in Los Angeles.