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Analysis: Sparks fly in most contentious debate to date

  • Story Highlights
  • Sniping competes with substance as Democratic front-runners get personal
  • Clinton says Obama has pattern for avoiding responsibility for votes
  • Obama says he has difficulty telling if he's running against Bill or Hillary Clinton
  • Edwards throws own punches but couldn't position himself between two rivals
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By Mark Preston and Robert Yoon
CNN Washington Bureau
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MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (CNN) -- The gloves came off quickly Monday night as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traded blows just days before the South Carolina primary, and two weeks before voters in 24 Super Tuesday states weigh in on this wide-open presidential contest.

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Barack Obama jabbed Hillary Clinton for serving on Wal-Mart's board; she ripped him for ties to a "slum landlord."

Former Sen. John Edwards, who has yet to win an early contest, threw his own punches but was unable to firmly position himself in the middle of the Clinton-Obama scrum. It probably worked to his advantage, because he was never really put on the defensive like Obama nor appeared as aggressive as Clinton.

But it might be too late for Edwards to turn around his campaign in what is shaping up to be a two-candidate race.

Still, there was no clear winner in this Democratic slugfest, the most contentious yet, unless you count John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator who took the gold in last Saturday's South Carolina Republican presidential primary.

Edwards all but crowned McCain the Republican nominee, while Clinton and Obama also mentioned him as the possible GOP nominee. McCain is now part of the Democratic lexicon.

While the debate was in Myrtle Beach, it had national implications. Clinton is leaving South Carolina for a few days, a sign that she might be conceding the state to Obama. But in doing so, she is laying the groundwork for a Super Tuesday showdown when 1,681 delegates are up for grabs.

The debate focused on pressing issues such as the looming economic crisis, health care and illegal immigration, but the most memorable moments were the sharp -- and at times personal -- exchanges between Clinton and Obama. Video Watch the back-and-forth over health care »

She hit him for his ties to a Chicago real estate developer, who is facing a laundry list of charges ranging from money laundering and attempted extortion. And she knocked him for his vote on bankruptcy legislation.

"Well, you know, Sen. Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern," she said.

In turn, Obama accused her of deploying her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to attack him.

"I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," said Obama. He also accused the Clintons of distorting his record and statements. See what CNN's political analysts thought about the attacks »

The debate, co-sponsored by CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, was held on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and addressed a number of issues affecting the African-American community, from HIV/AIDS to sub-prime mortgages. See what the candidates said on the issues »

One of the lighter moments of the debate came when Obama was asked if he believes Bill Clinton was the "first black president," as Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison once declared.

"I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community, and still does," he added. "And I think that's well-earned."

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He later added, "I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill's dancing abilities, you know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother."

It was a moment of levity in a debate punctuated by sharp exchanges, and one we won't see again in the tense weeks ahead. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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