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Clinton, Obama Hold Final Debate Before Pivotal Votes Next Week

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In Cleveland, Ohio, Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sparred last night over healthcare, NAFTA, the Iraq war, campaign tactics, Louis Farrakhan and other issues in the final debate before next week’s vote in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island. We play excerpts. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Cleveland, Ohio, Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sparred last night over healthcare, NAFTA, the Iraq war, campaign tactics, Louis Farrakhan and other issues in the final debate before next week’s vote in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island. In an attempt to appeal to voters in Ohio, Clinton and Obama repeatedly criticized NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, but moderator Tim Russert pointed out both candidates had expressed support for the trade deal in the past.

    TIM RUSSERT: I want to ask you both about NAFTA, because the record, I think, is clear, and I want — Senator Clinton, Senator Obama said that you did say in 2004 that, on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York and America. You did say that. When President Clinton signed this bill — and this was after he negotiated two new side agreements for labor and environment — President Clinton said it would be a force for economic growth and social progress. You said in '96 it was proving its worth as free and fair trade. You said that in 2000, it was a good idea that took political courage. So your record is pretty clear.

    Based on that — and what you're now expressing your discomfort with it —- in the debate that Al Gore had with Ross Perot, Al Gore said the following: “If you don’t like NAFTA and what it’s done, we can get out of it in six months. The president can say to Canada and Mexico, we are out. This has not been a good agreement.” Will you, as president, say, “We are out of NAFTA in six months”?

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I have said that I will renegotiate NAFTA, so obviously you’d have to say to Canada and Mexico that that’s exactly what we’re going to do. But, you know, in fairness -—

    TIM RUSSERT: So let me be clear —

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Yes, I am clear.

    TIM RUSSERT: You will get out — you will notify Mexico and Canada: NAFTA is gone in six months?

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: No. I will say, we will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it. And we renegotiate it on terms that are favorable to all of America.

    But let’s be fair here, Tim. There are lots of parts of New York that have benefited, just like there are lots of parts of Texas that have benefited. The problem is in places like Upstate New York, places like Youngstown, Toledo and others throughout Ohio that have not benefited. And if you look at what I’ve been saying, it has been consistent.

    You know, Senator Obama told the farmers of Illinois a couple of years ago that he wanted more trade agreements —

    TIM RUSSERT: We’re going to get — we’re going to get to Senator Obama.


    TIM RUSSERT: But I want to stay on your comment —

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, but that — but that is important.

    TIM RUSSERT: — because this was something that you wrote about as a real success for your husband. You said it was good on balance for New York and America in 2004. And now you’re in Ohio, and your words are much different, Senator. The record is very clear.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, you don’t have all the record, because you can go back and look at what I’ve said consistently. And I haven’t just said things; I have actually voted to toughen trade agreements, to try to put more teeth into our enforcement mechanisms. And I will continue to do so.

    But, you know, Tim, when you look at what the Cleveland Plain Dealer said when they examined the kind of criticism that Senator Obama was making of me — it’s not me saying it — they said it was erroneous. And it was erroneous because it didn’t look at the entire picture, both of what I’ve said and what I’ve done.

    But let’s talk about what we’re going to do. It is not enough just to criticize NAFTA, which I have, and for some years now. I have put forth a very specific plan about what I would do. And it does include telling Canada and Mexico that we will opt out unless we renegotiate the core labor and environmental standards, not side agreements, but core agreements, that we will enhance the enforcement mechanism, and that we will have a very clear view of how we’re going to review NAFTA going forward to make sure it works. And we’re going to take out the ability of foreign companies to sue us because of what we do to protect our workers.

    I would also say that you can go back and look at from the very beginning. I think David Gergen was on TV today remembering that I was very skeptical about it. It has worked in some parts of America. It has not worked in Ohio. It has not worked in Upstate New York. And since I’ve been in the Senate — neither of us voted on this. That wasn’t something either of us got to cast an independent vote on. Since I have been in the Senate, I have worked to try to ameliorate the impact of these trade agreements.

    TIM RUSSERT: But let me button this up. Absent the change that you’re suggesting, you are willing to opt out of NAFTA in six months?

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I’m confident that as president, when I say we will opt out unless we renegotiate, we will be able to renegotiate.

    TIM RUSSERT: Senator Obama, you did, in 2004, talk to farmers and suggest that NAFTA had been helpful. The Associated Press today ran a story about NAFTA saying that you have been consistently ambivalent towards the issue. Simple question: will you, as president, say to Canada and Mexico, “This has not worked for us, we are out”?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I will make sure that we renegotiate in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about, and I think actually Senator Clinton’s answer on this one is right. I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced. And that is not what has been happening so far. That is something that I have been consistent about.

    I have to say, Tim, with respect to my position on this, you know, when I ran for the United States Senate, the Chicago Tribune, which was adamantly pro-NAFTA, noted that, in their endorsement of me, they were endorsing me despite my strong opposition to NAFTA. And that conversation that I had with the Farm Bureau, I was not ambivalent at all. What I said was that NAFTA and other trade deals can be beneficial to the United States, because I believe every US worker is as productive as any worker around the world. And we can compete with anybody. And we can’t shy away from globalization. We can’t draw a moat around us. But what I did say in that same quote, if you look at it, was that the problem is we’ve been negotiating just looking at corporate profits and what’s good for multinationals, and we haven’t been looking at what’s good for communities here in Ohio, in my home state of Illinois, and across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Prior to answering the question about NAFTA, Senator Clinton accused the media of being biased toward Senator Obama.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, can I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don’t mind. You know, I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw Saturday Night Live, you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow. I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues. But I’m happy to answer it.

AMY GOODMAN: At last night’s debate, moderator Tim Russert asked Senator Barack Obama about receiving a recent endorsement from the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. After Obama said he denounced Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments, Russert pressed him on the issue.

    TIM RUSSERT: The problem some voters may have is, as you know, Reverend Farrakhan called Judaism “gutter religion.”

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Tim, I think — I am very familiar with his record, as are the American people. That’s why I have consistently denounced it. This is not something new. This is something that — I live in Chicago. He lives in Chicago. I’ve been very clear, in terms of me believing that what he has said is reprehensible and inappropriate. And I have consistently distanced myself from him.

    TIM RUSSERT: The title of one of your books, Audacity of Hope, you acknowledge you got from a sermon from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the head of the Trinity United Church. He said that Louis Farrakhan “epitomizes greatness.”
    He said that he went to Libya in 1984 with Louis Farrakhan to visit with Muammar Gaddafi and that, when your political opponents found out about that, quote, “your Jewish support would dry up quicker than a snowball in Hell.”

    What do you do to assure Jewish Americans that, whether it’s Farrakhan’s support or the activities of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, your pastor, you are consistent with issues regarding Israel and not in any way suggesting that Farrakhan epitomizes greatness?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Tim, I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community in my hometown of Chicago and in this presidential campaign. And the reason is because I have been a stalwart friend of Israel’s. I think they are one of our most important allies in the region, and I think that their security is sacrosanct and that the United States is in a special relationship with them, as is true with my relationship with the Jewish community.

    And the reason that I have such strong support is because they know that not only would I not tolerate anti-Semitism in any form, but also because of the fact that what I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African American community and the Jewish community. You know, I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South.

AMY GOODMAN: Near the end of the debate, Senator Clinton brought up her 2002 vote in the Senate authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

    TIM RUSSERT: Before you go, each of you have talked about your careers in public service. Looking back through them, is there any words or vote that you’d like to take back, Senator Clinton?

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, obviously, I’ve said many times that, although my vote on the 2002 authorization regarding Iraq was a sincere vote, I would not have voted that way again.
    I would certainly, as president, never have taken us to war in Iraq. And I regret deeply that President Bush waged a preemptive war, which I warned against and said I disagreed with.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama squaring off in Cleveland, Ohio, in their last debate before the big votes next week.

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