Democratic Contenders Take Swipes in New Style of Debate

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday dismissed criticism from her chief rivals over her acceptance of campaign contributions from lobbyists, calling their concerns "a little inauthentic" since they accept money from lobbyists' employers and relatives.

In an interview for an online candidates' forum sponsored by Yahoo!, Slate Magazine and the Huffington Post, Clinton also announced she would release her plan to offer universal health coverage next Monday.

"I hope the headline will read, 'Hillary is back and we're going to get it done this time,"' she said.

All eight Democratic contenders participated in the so-called online "mashup," including Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Mike Gravel.

They took questions from moderator Charlie Rose on education, health care and the Iraq War, many of which were submitted from readers online. Comedian Bill Maher also made a surprise appearance, offering "wild card" questions on issues such as whether marijuana should be legalized.

Clinton offered few details about her health care plan except to say that it would dramatically rein in the influence of health insurance companies. She also said she had learned from her failed attempt to reshape health care during her husband's administration that political consensus was required.

When pressed by Rose on why she accepted contributions from insurance company representatives when they had worked to thwart her reform efforts as first lady, Clinton bristled.

"I think it's somewhat silly that anybody would look at me with the record that I have and the extraordinary incoming fire that I've taken for 15 years and suggest that talking to people, even working with them is somehow out of bounds," she said.

"And you know, I think it's a little inauthentic for people to say 'don't take money from lobbyists but it's OK to take it from their spouses, their children, their associates and from people that work for companies that employ them. That is, you know, to me, kind of an artificial distinction."

Both Obama and Edwards have seized on Clinton's acceptance of lobbyist contributions as evidence she is too cozy with the Washington establishment. Both men refuse contributions from federal lobbyists, but both accept money from firms that have lobbying operations, and Obama in particular has tapped the networks of lobbyists' friends and co-workers. Obama, a former state senator from Illinois, has long accepted money from state lobbyists.

The pitfalls of presidential campaign fundraising have come under harsh light in recent days, with revelations that Norman Hsu, a top fundraiser for Clinton and other Democratic candidates and causes, had been wanted for 15 years on a felony fraud charge in California.

A Clinton spokesman announced this week that the campaign would return $850,000 that Hsu had raised and would conduct criminal background checks on its major money raisers.

Obama, who had also received a small amount of money from Hsu, acknowledged the difficulty of avoiding tainted money in the frenzy of a multimillion-dollar presidential campaign.

"You know, Charlie, money is the original sin of politics," Obama told Rose. "And when you're running for president you're going to do some sinning when it comes to raising money, because otherwise you can't compete."

Obama raised $58 million by the end of June, more than any other contender. Clinton was second with about $54 million.

The Democrats agreed on most of the major issues raised during the forum.

All said the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker to Congress this week failed to convince them that a political consensus was achievable in Iraq, despite the modest success of the U.S. troop increase in tamping down violence in some parts of the country.

The candidates also generally defended Petraeus when pressed by Rose on whether they agreed with a newspaper ad sponsored by the anti-war group MoveOn, calling him "General Betray Us," and suggesting he had political motives.

Maher, with his offbeat questions, provoked some interesting responses from the candidates.

— Dodd told Maher he would not legalize marijuana, but would favor decriminalizing the drug in part to prevent prison overcrowding.

— Biden, asked to rank the relative dangers of high fructose corn syrup, coal soot or a terrorist strike, chose air with too much coal in it, followed by corn syrup. "But that is not in any way to diminish the fact that a terrorist attack is real," he added.

— Gravel was asked whether he would be willing to tell the American people they were "fatter and dumber" because of the obesity epidemic and poor standardized test scores in schools.

"I am prepared to tell you that Americans are getting fatter and dumber. I have no problem saying that," Gravel said, adding "I've also said that the Americans are going to get the government they deserve."