JOHNSTON, Iowa (AFP) — Hillary Clinton personally said sorry to Barack Obama Thursday, after a key aide questioned her White House rival's past use of drugs, in a misstep which overshadowed a vital campaign debate.
Clinton had hoped to use the last Democratic showdown before Iowa's caucuses launch 2008 nominating contests on January 3, to sweep away talk of slipping poll numbers and reports of turmoil in her campaign.
But instead, she had to accept the resignation of Bill Shaheen, a powerplayer in another key state, New Hampshire, in a row which the Obama campaign used to bolster claims she is guilty of using damaging hyper-partisan politics.
The row erupted after Shaheen told the Washington Post that Republicans would attack Obama for his past experimentation with drugs, which the Illinois senator acknowledged in a memoir, as a folly of his youth.
"It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'" Shaheen said.
In a resignation statement, he said his remarks had not been authorized by the campaign.
But Clinton paid the price for his indiscretion, as she was forced to take the embarrassing step of approaching Obama on the airport tarmac in Washington to personally apologize, saying she had been "upset" over the slur, aides said.
Clinton strategist Mark Penn said the former first lady told Obama the remark was "unfortunate and inappropriate."
Top Obama aide David Axelrod said: "they say he was on his own, we will let voters across Iowa and New Hampshire make their judgment."
The undertone of nastiness formed a surreal contrast to a sleepy debate which broke no new ground.
Obama and Clinton, locked in a tight three-way race with former vice presidential nominee John Edwards in Iowa, half-heartedly sparred over who could best ignite political change.
"Everybody on this stage has an idea about how to get change. Some believe you get change by demanding it. Some believe you get it by hoping for it," Clinton said, mocking Edwards' populist tone and Obama's "politics of hope" rhetoric.
"I believe you get it by working hard for change."
Obama however argued Clinton was a cause of partisan gridlock in Washington, not a cure for it.
"We are not going to make these changes unless we change how business is done in Washington," Obama said.
In a rare highlight, Obama was put on the spot when asked why so many of his advisors had worked in former president Bill Clinton's administration.
Clinton laughed out loud, saying, "I want to hear the answer to that!" before a poised Obama delivered a killer punchline: "Well, Hillary, I look forward to you advising me, as well."
The exchange encapsulated a shift in the visual dynamic of the race, as Clinton appeared like a hard charging underdog, and Obama more like a front-runner with the luxury of hitting his rival on the counter-attack.
In a personal appeal to Iowa voters, Obama, a first-term Illinois senator trying to become America's first African-American president, said he felt an urgency to heal a nation at war, and a planet in peril.
Clinton vowed to re-examine a sheaf of free trade agreements, some of which were sealed under her husband Bill Clinton's administration, and are now derided in states like Iowa for sending blue collar jobs abroad.
"We don't want to be the trade patsies of the world," she said.
Edwards, running third in Iowa polls, warned meanwhile the US government had been taken over by "corrupt power and greed."
Obama has now pushed ahead of Clinton by a couple of points in a RealClearPolitics.com average of Iowa polls, though the race in that crucial early nominating state remains a statistical dead heat.
A CNN/WMUR poll in New Hampshire meanwhile had Clinton just edging Obama by 31 percent to 30 percent. She was down five points and Obama was up eight from the same poll in November. The New Hampshire primary is on January 8.
Clinton still holds a gaping lead in nationwide polls of the Democratic field.
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