After a collegial 45 minutes during which they acted more like running mates than rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama turned combative and clenched in a debate yesterday, with Mrs. Clinton all but accusing Mr. Obama of plagiarism. Mrs. Clinton, who is girding for March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio that aides say she must win, veered from polite to pointed as she challenged Mr. Obama.
AUSTIN - After a collegial 45 minutes during which they acted more like running mates than rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama turned combative and clenched in a debate yesterday, with Mrs. Clinton all but accusing Mr. Obama of plagiarism.
Mrs. Clinton, who is girding for March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio that aides say she must win, veered from polite to pointed as she challenged the originality of Mr. Obama's oratory and ideas.
In response to a debate panelist's question, Mrs. Clinton cited news reports about Mr. Obama's nearly verbatim use of remarks by a close ally of his, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. She noted that Mr. Obama had drawn great praise for his speeches, and then questioned whether they were authentic or plagiarized.
Playing off a trademark line of Mr. Obama's, she said: "Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in. It's change you can Xerox."
That remark drew boos from the audience at the University of Texas.
Mr. Obama dismissed the charge out of hand, then turned the jeers to applause when he countered, "What we shouldn't be doing is tearing each other down, we should be lifting the country up."
Mr. Obama noted that the similarities to Mr. Patrick's remarks were limited to a few lines - and added that Mr. Patrick, a member of his campaign team, had encouraged him to use the comments.
"The notion that I plagiarized from one of my national co-chairs, who gave me the line and encouraged me to use it, is silly," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Obama, who has won the last 10 state contests and has a lead in delegates for the Democratic nomination, mostly stayed positive, though he did appear to blame his opponent her for fostering a "silly season" of attack politics.
Mrs. Clinton entered the debate with her advisers somewhat torn about how aggressive to be against Mr. Obama, who is enjoying significant political momentum.
Her advisers said she believed that simply sitting on a stage, making her cases side-by-side with Mr. Obama, would reap points because she would look experienced and presidential. But some advisers had said she needed to be more assertive in making him seem ill-prepared for the job.
As for her actual performance, Mrs. Clinton appeared relaxed at times as she made her case; at other points, she looked as if she could not wait to deliver punches against Mr. Obama or respond to his remarks. Still, little that she said appeared to rattle him. He generally stuck to his talking points, and sometimes, when she did attack him, he said he wanted only to reply to her criticism on the issues.
They disagreed on the proper response to a change in government in Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro's resignation.
Mrs. Clinton said she would refuse to sit down with incoming President Raul Castro until he implements political and economic reforms. Mr. Obama said he would meet "without preconditions," but added the U.S. agenda for such a session would include human rights in the Communist nation.
For much of the debate, however, the two candidates agreed over and over on their support for immigration reform, economic aid to struggling Americans, and democracy in Cuba. Both candidates also appealed to a major part of the Texas electorate - Hispanics - by emphasizing their support for immigration reform and their involvement in past legislation to help immigrants and their family members.
Mrs. Clinton has come to count on Hispanic voters, who helped her win nomination contests in Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico, but Mr. Obama is hoping to make inroads with economic populist arguments and emphasizing the needs of immigration.