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Newsday - Dems Answer YouTube Questions at Debate

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Location: CHARLESTON, S.C

Newsday - Dems Answer YouTube Questions at Debate

Glenn Thrush

A feisty Barack Obama clashed sharply with Hillary Rodham Clinton on issues ranging from Iraq to international relations to taking PAC contributions during Monday night's freewheeling Democratic debate sponsored by YouTube, CNN and Google.

Speaking against a backdrop of the Citadel, a bastion of conservatism and support for the military, the candidates fielded questions from mostly left-of-center Web users that ranged from the somber to the absurd -- sometimes in the course of the same question. A serious discussion of global warming, for instance, was prompted by a question posed by a Claymation snowman, who asked if the world would be safe for his children.

"I was surprised that the format really opened it up and accentuated everyone's differences," said Joe Trippi, John Edwards' top adviser, known for his innovative use of the Web.

On balance the YouTube questions were blunt and less crafted. The anything-goes format coincided with a more aggressive and sure-footed performance from Obama, accused of being flat and long-winded in previous debates. Obama, who opposed the war from its start, said he was unimpressed by Clinton's recent push to get the Pentagon to release details of their strategy for withdrawing eventually from Iraq.

"One thing I have to say about Senator Clinton's comments," said Obama, who was serving in the Illinois state legislature when Clinton voted for the invasion in 2002. "The time for us to ask how are we going to get out of Iraq was before we went in."

Clinton shot back when Obama talked about the need for a president to talk directly with leaders of countries that clash with the U.S., including Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. "I think that it's a disgrace we have not spoken to them," said Obama, adding he would be willing to meet with those leaders "unconditionally" during his first year in the White House.

Clinton, her voice rising, replied, "I will not promise to meet with leaders of these countries during my first year ... I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes ... We're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be."

Obama, who is beating Clinton in fundraising but trailing by an average of 15 points in national polls, seemed much more at ease than in previous debates.

Obama aides said he romped in in focus groups of debate viewers. But Clinton's pollster Mark Penn said Obama's commitment to meeting hostile foreign leaders would haunt his campaign bypointing up his inexperience. "When you got the money question, he stumbled," said Penn, when asked if Obama appeared more relaxed Monday night. "This election is not about being relaxed and limber, it's about how are you going to deal with the most difficult questions that face a world leader."

Each candidate was asked to submit their own YouTube campaign videos. The most jarring video was John Edwards', which featured the song "Hair" -- a reference to the spate of stories about his $400 haircut -- played over images of soldiers in Iraq and starving children.

Clinton and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware clashed on how to deal with genocide in Darfur. Biden, who favors a U.S ground presence, said, "Twenty-five hundred American troops ... can stop the genocide now." Moderator Anderson Cooper pressed Clinton to see if she agreed. "American ground troops I don't think belong in Darfur at this time," she said.

Clinton demurred at the end when candidates were asked to say something positive -- and negative -- about the person standing to their left: in her case, Barack Obama.

Edwards happened to be standing next to Clinton. After praising her Senate record, he peered at her coral jacket and said, "I'm not sure about that coat."


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