Obama fields tough questions in Dem debate

PHILADELPHIA -- Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) was on the hot seat at Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, giving rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) several openings to push the electability argument in front of a national audience.

Clinton was likely as focused on uncommitted superdelegates as Pennsylvanians, repeatedly pushing the theme that Obama’s recent stumbles – “bittergate” and the controversy surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright – would provide fodder for Republicans in the general election.

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In the first half of the debate, held just six days before Pennsylvanians head to the polls, Obama faced tough questioning on remarks he made in San Francisco earlier this month. He told participants at a fundraiser there that small-town Americans are “bitter,” arguing that this pushes them to “cling” to guns and religion.

“I think there’s no doubt I can see how people were offended,” Obama said in defense of his comments.

Clinton seized on that and other openings, rehashing her criticism from recent days that presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and other Republicans will use the remarks against Obama in the general election.

“[McCain] will be a formidable candidate; there’s no doubt about that,” Clinton said. “I believe I'm the better and stronger candidate against John McCain.”

Obama was on his heels for most of the night as the debate moderators peppered him with questions ranging from his “bitter” remarks to his position on raising the capital gains tax to his decision not to wear an American flag on his lapel.

At every turn, Clinton responded by hammering Obama for the statements or deeds in question, maintaining a polite tone while sending not-so-subtle signals to voters that she thinks Obama would be a softer general election candidate.

But when asked point-blank if she thinks Obama can win in the fall, Clinton, after initial hedging, emphatically said: “Yes, yes, yes.”

“Now I think that I can do a better job, obviously that’s why I’m here,” she added.

Obama shook off Clinton’s efforts to paint him as a general election liability for the Democrats, assuring voters he is tough enough to stand up in “the cauldron of the campaign,” as the former first lady put it.

“I can take a punch,” Obama said. “I’ve taken several from Senator Clinton.”

The New York senator also faced some tough questioning in the early going when she was asked by a voter via video recording about her credibility following her exaggerated story about landing in Bosnia.

“I’m embarrassed by it,” she said. “I’ve apologized for it.”

Clinton also wandered into trouble when moderator George Stephanopoulos pressed her to reconcile her position on the Washington, D.C. gun ban with the view she held when running for the Senate in New York.{mospagebreak}

But Obama bore the brunt of the moderators’ tough questioning.

ABCNews anchor Charlie Gibson pressed Obama on his decision to rescind an invitation to his candidacy announcement to the controversial Wright despite the senator’s claims that he only recently became aware of Wright’s inflammatory statements.

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“That was on something entirely different, Charlie,” Obama said. He added that he had “disowned” Wright before clarifying that he had only disowned the comments.

On that and other issues, Clinton replied by saying “it is something I think deserves further exploration.”

Obama also faced questions about his relationship with the unrepentant former domestic terrorist, William Ayers.

The Illinois senator responded that Clinton would also face questions on that front because former President Bill Clinton pardoned two former members of the Weather Underground, Ayers’s former group.

“By Senator Clinton’s own vetting standard, I don’t think she would make it,” Obama said.

At one point, while discussing Wright, Clinton also injected another controversial minister supporting Obama – Louis Farrakhan.

“These are problems, and they raise questions in people’s minds,” she said. Clinton added later: “It goes to the larger set of concerns about how we will run against John McCain.”

However, Terry Madonna, a political analyst and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said Obama did a good job of making the questions about the recent hot-button stumbles seem “trivial.”

“No harm, no foul,” Madonna said.

After the debate, in the spin room, Howard Wolfson, a senior Clinton adviser, again raised the issue of electability, saying Obama was asked tough questions and he was “unable to give clear and satisfactory answers.”

“I think we saw a preview of what would happen if he were the nominee,” Wolfson said.

But David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, said the Illinois senator was “straight-forward” and demonstrating that many of the questions were what the American public disdains about politics.

“I don’t know about fair,” Axelrod told The Hill when he was asked if the moderators’ questions were fair to Obama. Axelrod said “four of the first five questions” were aimed at Obama “and none of them were on a substantive issue.”