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Race heats up with Democrat debate and Schwarzenegger move

1 February 2008

LOS ANGELES – Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama squared off Thursday in their first one-on-one debate as Clinton tried to stop Obama’s momentum before the critical super Tuesday races in 24 states.

The debate capped a day of intense political activity after influential California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed Republican front-runner John McCain for the party’s presidential nomination.

The endorsement of the former action movie star turned politician was seen by analysts as giving McCain a key advantage in Schwarzenegger’s state, where the Austrian-born former muscleman is a popular figure despite growing economic problems.

But most of the attention focused on the Democrats who have an electoral advantage in California and are trying to end the eight-year rule of Republicans under President George W Bush.

There was little of the bad tempered squabbling that erupted in the Republican debate a night earlier and two Democrats stressed their common differences with the current ruling party on immigration, health reform, tax relief.

"I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign. I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over," said Obama, 46.

"Just by looking at us you can tell we are not more of the same," said Clinton, 61. "We will change this country."

But they sparred over the war in Iraq with Obama blasting Clinton’s support for the pre-Iraq war resolution that authorised President Bush to use force. Obama also criticised the former first lady for failing to commit to a timetable for withdrawal. "I made a reasoned judgment – the person who actually got to execute the policy did not," she said.

Obama meanwhile brandished his anti-war credentials. "I think I will be the Democrat who will be most effective in going up against John McCain…because I will offer a clear contrast," he said. "I don’t want to just end the war, I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place."

The showdown came hours after the Obama campaign revealed it had raised 32 million dollars in January from roughly 170,000 new donors. That amount will allow Obama to significantly expand his television advertising in the competing states holding primaries or caucuses Tuesday.

Schwarzenegger announcement was McCain’s second major endorsement in two days. Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was also present at the event, withdrew from the Republican presidential race on Wednesday and endorsed McCain.

"I am endorsing Senator McCain to be the next president of the United States," Schwarzenegger said. "He is a great American hero and an extraordinary leader."

Schwarzenegger’s move had been widely expected as both men are considered political mavericks in the centre-right US party, with strong appeal among independents.

The endorsement came amid a heated political atmosphere in California, where McCain clashed with his main rival Mitt Romney in a debate Wednesday about who was more hardline on Iraq.

Nearly half of US states will hold votes on super Tuesday to put their stamp on which Democrat or Republican should represent their party in the November 4 presidential election.

[Copyright dpa 2008]

Subject: Super Tuesday, US elections, primaries