Obama criticizes Clinton's candor

January 23, 2008 6:17:37 PM PST
Democrat Barack Obama questioned Hillary Rodham Clinton's candor and trustworthiness Wednesday, saying she has indulged in double-talk on bankruptcy laws, trade and other issues. The Illinois senator's comments, continuing a theme he has stressed in recent days, may have contributed to an outburst by former President Clinton, who rebuked Obama and sharply accused journalists of treating him more gently than they treat the Clintons.

The atmosphere grew more charged throughout the day after Clinton's campaign aired an ad in South Carolina suggesting Obama approved of Republican ideas.

Questions about the candidates' honesty and consistency have been paramount since Monday's testy presidential debate between Obama and Clinton, with former senator John Edwards sometimes chiming in. Obama, campaigning exclusively in the state ahead of Saturday's Democratic primary, is portraying Sen. Clinton as an old-school politician willing to shade the truth.

Politicians "don't always say what they mean, or mean what they say," he told about 900 people at Winthrop University. "That is what this debate in this party is all about."

At two stops Wednesday, Obama mocked the New York senator for saying she voted for a 2001 bankruptcy bill but was happy it did not become law.

"Senator Clinton said, `Well, I voted for it, but I hoped the bill would die,'" he said, drawing hoots from the crowd.

In a similar vein, Obama said Clinton originally praised the North American Free Trade Agreement, enacted during her husband's presidency, but now criticizes aspects of it.

"You can't always tell what Senator Clinton's position on trade has been," he said.

Talk and its meaning seemed to dominate the day.

In a Clinton radio ad that uses a clip from his recent interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board, Obama is heard saying: "The Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years."

An announcer says: "Hillary Clinton thinks this election is about replacing disastrous Republican ideas with new ones, like jump-starting the economy."

Obama's campaign planned to run a response ad. But it first enlisted supporters in South Carolina to denounce the Clinton piece as selective editing. Former Gov. Jim Hodges protested that Clinton's campaign seemed determined to win "at all costs."

Obama's comment about Republicans came as he discussed elections that represented shifts in political direction. The full quote is: "I think it's fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10-15 years in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom."

He preceded the remark by noting that John F. Kennedy also had shifted the direction of the country. "I think we're in one of those times right now, where people feel like things as they are going aren't working," he said. "That we're bogged down in the same arguments that we've been having, and they're not useful. And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out."

Bill Clinton, who has been campaigning for his wife in South Carolina this week, said Obama and the media had stirred up tensions over race in response to criticism from some Democrats about the couple's strategy.

"I never heard a word of public complaint when Mr. Obama said Hillary was not truthful, no character, was poll-driven. He had more pollsters than she did," Bill Clinton said in a heated exchange with a CNN reporter. "When he put out a hit job on me at the same time he called her the senator from Punjab, I never said a word."

It was not clear what he meant by "hit job."

The former president has accused Obama of exaggerating his anti-war record and handing out undeserved praise to Republicans. Clinton said he personally witnessed Obama's union forces intimidating Nevada caucus-goers and said an Obama radio ad suggested how Democrats could keep votes from his wife.

Last year, Obama's campaign circulated a memo describing Hillary Clinton as "D-Punjab," a reference to her Indian-American donors. Obama has said that was a mistake.

Bill Clinton said civil rights leaders Andrew Young and John Lewis have defended his wife. "They both said that Hillary was right and the people who attacked her were wrong and that she did not play the race card, but they did," he said. "Let him go get in an argument with them about it."

At the end of the exchange, Clinton told the CNN reporter, "Shame on you."

Clinton also told about 100 people in Charleston that he was proud of the Democratic Party for having a woman and a black candidate and he understands why Obama is drawing support among blacks, who are expected to comprise at least half of Saturday's turnout.

"As far as I can tell, neither Senator Obama nor Hillary have lost votes because of their race or gender. They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender - that's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here," Clinton said. "But that's understandable because people are proud when someone who they identify with emerges for the first time."

Hillary Clinton's campaign also has struck back at Obama on the honesty issue. It provided TV outlets with video of him saying recently that he opposes a single-payer health care system, and a 2003 clip in which he appeared to endorse such a plan.

Obama told NBC's "Today" show on Wednesday that "a single-payer system is one that I would support if we were starting from scratch."

He also sought to distance himself from a real estate developer and fast-food magnate facing federal corruption charges, saying he had no indication of any problems when he accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from longtime supporter Antoin "Tony" Rezko.

"When those problems were discovered, we returned money from him that had been contributed," Obama told CBS' "Early Show."


Associated Press writers Mike Baker in Charleston, S.C., and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.