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Clinton, Obama come out swinging in debate

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  • NEW: Front-runners waste no time launching new attacks
  • NEW: Edwards tries to stay out of heated exchange
  • Top three Democratic candidates debating in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
  • South Carolina's Democratic primary is Saturday
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MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (CNN) -- Discussions about proposals on the economy and health care were overshadowed by heated exchanges between rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during Monday night's Democratic debate.

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Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama started arguing almost as soon as the debate began.

The two Democratic front-runners took shots at each others' economic plans and criticized the accuracy of recent accusations the two campaigns have traded.

Obama said Clinton's charge that fiscal responsibility isn't a priority for him "isn't true."

"This is one of the things that has happened in the course of this campaign. There are a set of assertions made by Sen. Clinton as well as her husband that are not factually accurate," Obama said, raising the criticisms the Clintons made about him in recent days.

"Part of what the people are looking for right now is somebody who is going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we've seen in Washington," he said.

Clinton replied she was referring to differences in Obama's position toward the Iraq war. "It was more about the distinction between words and action. And I think that is a fair assessment for voters to make," she said. Video Watch Clinton, Obama trade jabs »

Clinton said it is "sometimes difficult to understand what Sen. Obama has said because as soon as he is confronted on it he says that's not what he meant."

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards jumped in, saying "Are there three people in this debate, not two?"

"This kind of squabbling -- how many children is this going to get health care? How many people are going to get education because of this? How many kids are going to get to go to college because of this?" Edwards said to cheers from the crowd.

"I respect both of my fellow candidates, but we have got to understand this is not about us personally."

CNN I-Reporters, providing their reaction to the debate, responded negatively to the bickering tone between Clinton and Obama.

"I am proud that Sen. Edwards is taking the high road and making himself stand out from the bickering senators, Clinton and Obama. We don't need blame for our troubles, we need solutions," wrote David Parker of San Jose, California.

"The two leading candidates are getting closer to nothing -- they will lose the election to Republican Party if they keep talking in such a way," Duop Chak of Colorado Springs, Colorado, wrote on CNN.com's Political Ticker.

The candidates are facing off in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, five days before the state's Democratic primary. The debate was put together by CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. See what the candidates said on the issues »

CNN political analyst Bill Schneider said this could be a debate "where John Edwards gets back in the game."

"He's effectively making his points, while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are in silly squabbles. Voters have too many concerns to care about Obama and Clinton's political potshots," Schneider said.Edwards said ending poverty is "the cause of my life." See what CNN's political team thought about the attacks »

"Now, fiscal responsibility, which I think was the question. It was a little hard to tell there at the end of that. But I think the question was about fiscal responsibility," he said.

"I have proposed, I think, the most aggressive, most progressive agenda of the three of us up here," he said.

On the issue of Iraq, Clinton was asked if she is looking to end the war or win it.

"I'm looking to bring our troops home, starting within 60 days of my becoming president," she said. "There is no military solution, and our young men and women should not remain as the referees of their conflict."

Edwards said within his first year as president he would have all combat troops out of Iraq and there would be no permanent military bases in Iraq.

"I have not heard either of them say that definitively," he said.

Obama responded saying, "I want to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in, but I want to make sure that we get all of our combat troops out as quickly as we can safely." Video Watch Edwards, Obama debate Iraq »

CNN's Wolf Blitzer is moderating and CNN's Suzanne Malveaux and Joe Johns are asking questions. Video Watch the crew get ready for Monday's debate »

Clinton and Obama directed some of their responses at each other instead of the panel of moderators.

"It is very difficult having a standup debate with you because you never take responsibility for any vote," Clinton said after attacking Obama for not supporting a Senate amendment that would have capped the interest rate on credit cards at 30 percent.

"It's just very difficult to get a straight answer." The comment drew boos from Obama supporters.

At one point, Clinton said that Obama had represented a "slum landlord business" in Chicago when he was practicing law, which brought some boos from the audience.

When given an opportunity to respond, Obama explained the law firm he used to work for represented a church group that had partnered with an individual to do a project "and I did about five hours worth of work on this joint project. That's what she's referring to."

Then he turned the explanation into a shot at Clinton. "Now, it's fine for her to throw that out, but the larger reason that I think this debate is important is because we do have to trust our leaders and what they say," he said. "...Truthfulness during campaigns makes a difference."

Edwards said it's being coming "increasingly likely" that the GOP presidential nominee will be Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Video Watch what McCain says about Edwards »

"Here's what we have to be thinking about. Who will be tough enough and strong enough and who can compete against John McCain in every place in America?" Edwards said. "I think I can go everywhere and compete head-to-head with McCain."

So far in the Democratic contests, Clinton, a senator from New York, has won New Hampshire, Nevada and Michigan. In Michigan, she was the only major candidate on the ballot. Obama, a senator from Illinois, won in Iowa.

Edwards finished second in Iowa, but he has yet to win any states.

Edwards would like to rebound in South Carolina, his native state. He won the primary there in 2004 when he was making his first bid for the White House.

Each of the candidates is trying to gain the support of the state's African-Americans, who make up almost half of the Democratic primary voters.

The majority of South Carolina black Democrats are leaning toward Obama, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Friday.

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The poll suggests nearly 60 percent of black registered Democrats were backing Obama as the presidential nominee, with 31 percent supporting Clinton.

That's a major shift from October, when African-Americans backed Clinton over Obama, 57 percent to 33 percent. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Bill Schneider contributed to this report.

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