(CNSNews.com) - Meeting for their 20th debate of the campaign season Tuesday night in Cleveland, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) covered many of the same topics they've been raising on the campaign trail -- NAFTA, universal health care, job creation, national security.
On a few occasions, however, moderator Tim Russert managed to put each candidate on the spot. For Obama, it was a question about Louis Farrakhan's support; for Clinton, it was question about releasing her tax returns and documents pertaining to her tenure as first lady.
Pressed on her refusal so far to release her tax returns, Sen. Clinton said she will release them eventually, upon becoming the Democratic presidential nominee -- "or even earlier." Before next Tuesday's primary? Russert pressed her.
"Well, I can't get it together by then, but I will certainly work to get it together. I'm a little busy right now; I hardly have time to sleep. But I will certainly work toward releasing, and we will get that done and in the public domain," Clinton responded.
Russert noted that on January 30th, the National Archives released 10,000 pages of Clinton's public schedule as first lady. Those documents are now in the custody of former President Clinton, Russert said. Will Clinton release those documents to the public -- to let everyone know "what you did, who you met with during those eight years?"
"Absolutely," Clinton replied. "I've urged that the process be as quick as possible. It's a cumbersome process, set up by law. It doesn't just apply to us, it applies to everyone in our position. And I have urged that our end of it move as expeditiously as we can. Now, also, President Bush claims the right to look at anything that is released, and I would urge the Bush White House to move as quickly as possible."
Russert asked Sen. Obama if he accepts the support of Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan, a man who once called Judaism a "gutter religion."
Farrakhan praised Obama over the weekend, calling him "the hope of the entire world."
"You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments," Obama responded. "I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible. I did not solicit this support. He expressed pride in an African-American who seems to be bringing the country together. I obviously can't censor him, but it is not support that I sought. And we're not doing anything, I assure you, formally or informally with Minister Farrakhan."
On other topics, the candidates were asked if they would be willing to opt out of the North American Free Trade Agreement in six months, if they can't renegotiate the treaty to their satisfaction.
Clinton said she's confident that as president, she could force renegotiation.
"I will make sure we renegotiate,"Obama agreed. "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."
Obama said as president he would be an "advocate on behalf of workers," a reference to factory workers who have seen their "jobs shipped overseas and suddenly they are left not just without a job, but without health care, without a pension, and are having to look for seven-buck-an-hour jobs at the local fast-food joint, that is devastating on them, but it's also devastating on the community. That's not the way that we're going to prosper as we move forward," Obama said.
Let them build windmills
Obama called for a greater investment in the nation's infrastructure: "And I've got a plan to do that. We're going to have to invest in science and technology. We've got to vastly improve our education system. We have to look at energy and the potential for creating green jobs that can not just save on our energy costs but, more importantly, can create jobs in building windmills that will produce manufacturing jobs here in Ohio, can put rural communities back on their feet by working on alternative fuels, making buildings more energy efficient.
"We can hire young people who are out of work and put them to work in the trade. So there are all sorts of things that we're going to have to do to make the United States economy much more competitive," he said.
5 million new jobs
Clinton said her target is to create at least 5 million new jobs. "I'm not just talking about it," she said. "I helped to pass legislation to begin a training program for green collar jobs. I want to see people throughout Ohio being trained to do the work that will put solar panels on roofs, install wind turbines, do geothermal, take advantage of biofuels, and I know that if we had put $5 billion into the stimulus package to really invest in the training and the tax incentives that would have created those jobs as the Democrats wanted, as I originally proposed, we would be on the way to creating those."
If U.S. troops are pulled out of Iraq and "al Qaeda resurges and Iraq goes to hell," what would Clinton or Obama, as president, do at that point? Tim Russert asked the candidates. "Do you hold the right, in your mind as American president, to re-invade, to go back into Iraq to stabilize it? " he asked.
Neither candidate gave a direct answer.
"You know, Tim, you ask a lot of hypotheticals," Clinton said. "I believe that it is in America's interests and in the interests of the Iraqis for us to have an orderly withdrawal. I've been saying for many months that the administration has to do more to plan, and I've been pushing them to actually do it. I've also said that I would begin to withdraw within 60 days based on a plan that I asked begun to be put together as soon as I became president. And I think we can take out one to two brigades a month. She said she opposes any long-term commitment of U.S. troops to Iraq.
Obama said he would reserve the right for the president -- as commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad. So that is true, I think, not just in Iraq, but that's true in other places. That's part of my argument with respect to Pakistan.
I think we should always cooperate with our allies and sovereign nations in making sure that we are rooting out terrorist organizations, but if they are planning attacks on Americans, like what happened in 9/11, it is my job -- it will be my job as president to make sure that we are hunting them down."
(Sen. Clinton objected that Obama got off the hook -- that Russert's question was about re-invading Iraq. Brian Williams said it was time for a station break.)
Why am I questioned first?
Early on in the debate, Sen. Clinton took issue with the media coverage she's getting from NBC. She said she found it "curious that I keep getting the first question" at the last several debates.
She told debate moderators Brian Williams and Tim Russert she doesn't mind -- she's happy to "field" the questions asked of her -- "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." (SNL parodied the soft treatment Obama is getting from the media.)
"I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues, Clinton said -- then launched into a defense of her position on NAFTA.
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