LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spent their last debate before next week's Super Tuesday contests pointing out differences on Iraq, health care and the economy -- but without all of the finger-pointing that's marked their campaigns.
Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton struck a mostly cordial tone during the debate.
The exchange was in sharp contrast to previous debates because of the absence of political sniping, yet was one of the most substantive policy discussions yet in the race for the nomination.
On Iraq, Obama said he'd be more able to end the war because he opposed it from the beginning. He said Clinton's vote to authorize the use of force there would undermine her efforts to bring it to an end.
"I think it is much easier for us to have the argument when we have a nominee who says, 'I always thought this was a bad idea -- this was a bad strategy,' " he said.
Clinton defended her vote, saying she was told by the White House that it would be used initially to return weapons inspectors to see whether Saddam Hussein had an active weapons program. See where they stand on Iraq
"I believe strongly that we needed to put inspectors in," the New York senator said. "That was the underlying reason why I at least voted to give President Bush the authority, put those inspectors in, let them do their work, figure out what is there and what isn't." Watch reaction to Clinton's thoughts on Iraq »
Both Obama and Clinton said they support ending the war.
On health care, Obama defended a plan he says would make insurance affordable to everyone who wants it, but not require everyone to buy it.
The Illinois senator said his proposal would require that all children be covered and allow young people to remain on their parents' health insurance up to age 25 -- but would not require adults to purchase care. Watch candidates discuss their differences »
"Every expert who looks at it says there won't be anybody out there who wants health care who will not be able to get it," he said. Watch the rivals discuss health care »
Clinton, who as first lady spearheaded her husband's ultimately failed health care reform effort in the early '90s, argued that any health plan should offer universal coverage.
"It is so important that as Democrats, we carry the banner of universal health care," she said. See where the candidates stand on health care
Clinton noted her experience pushing her husband's plan, saying she's best suited to hammer out the details of a new plan and create "a coalition that can withstand the insurance and the prescription drug companies."
The pair praised former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who dropped out of the Democratic race this week. Both are vying for his supporters. See what the candidates had to say, in their own words »
The Democratic race remains close going into Super Tuesday, when more than 20 states -- including California and New York -- will vote.
Obama won the season-opening Iowa caucuses, then finished second to Clinton in every contest until last week's South Carolina primary -- which he won with a commanding 55 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Clinton scored victories in the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses.
She also was the top vote-getter in Florida and Michigan, although no Democrats campaigned in those states and their delegates to the nominating convention will not count because of a squabble between state and national party leaders over the timing of the primaries.
Thursday's debate differed from the last time the two took to a stage together -- at a contentious January 21 debate in South Carolina in which the front-runners peppered each other with sharp attacks.
In contrast, on Thursday the two smiled, laughed at each other's jokes and repeatedly complimented the other when they agreed. What does the debate's cordial tone mean? »
Obama got laughs when asked about how he might counter Republican charges against "tax-and-spend liberal Democrats."
"Well, first of all, I don't think the Republicans are going to be in a real strong position to argue fiscal responsibility, when they have added $4 trillion or $5 trillion worth of national debt. I am happy to have that argument," he said.
Clinton drew cheers when she responded to a question about how a Clinton could promote change after decades of a Clinton or Bush in power.
"It did take a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush," she said. Watch Clinton make a jab at Bush »
The longest and loudest applause line of the night came when CNN's Wolf Blitzer noted that many Democrats have said they'd like to see a Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket in November.
Neither ruled out the possibility of selecting the other as a running mate. Watch the rivals discuss joining forces »
"The debate was a rallying debate for Democrats," said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider. "Democrats like both of them, they continue to like both of them, and they want to vote for both of them."
Schneider said the cordial tone probably helped both candidates. Obama continued momentum from his victory in the South Carolina primary and high-profile endorsements, including Sen. Ted Kennedy and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Clinton probably maintained her perceived status as the front-runner.
"I'm not sure that he turned the election around," Schneider said. "He is the challenger here -- he's got to persuade people they don't want to vote for her."
The debate, sponsored by CNN, the Los Angeles Times and Politico.com, was held at Los Angeles' Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards are handed out.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Clinton and Obama supporters thronged outside the venue -- cheering and waving signs.
The numerous actors, directors and musicians in the audience included Stevie Wonder, Pierce Brosnan, Rob Reiner, Jason Alexander, Isaiah Washington, Diane Keaton, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino and Christina Applegate.
Mike Gravel, the other Democratic presidential candidate still in the race, was not invited to participate in the debate because he did not meet certain criteria, including support in national polls. In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted January 14-17, Gravel received less than 1 percent. E-mail to a friend
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