Clinton gets boos, cheers in crucial debate

Hillary Clinton, her campaign for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination on the ropes, was looking to trip up rival Barack Obama on Thursday night in one of two crucial debates.

A crucial Democrat presidential debate turned ugly Thursday night, as Hillary Clinton was booed loudly for attacking her rival Barack Obama's words as nothing more than "change you can Xerox."

Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debate at the University of Texas in Austin on Thursday. ((Deborah Cannon/Associated Press))

Clinton, a New York senator, made the comment about 45 minutes into what had been a relatively civil debate at the University of Texas in Austin.

Playing on Obama's slogan of "Change you can believe in," she accused Obama of plagiarizing a segment of his speeches from his current campaign co-chair, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

"If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words," she said. "Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox."

The comment earned her loud boos and jeers from the packed audience. Obama, a senator from Illinois, pleaded for civility.

"What we shouldn't be doing is spending time tearing each other down, we should be lifting the country up," Obama said to loud applause.

"This is where we start getting into the silly season in politics and I think people get discouraged about it," he added at another point.

Key primaries in Ohio, Texas

Thursday's debate came days before two key primaries on March 4 in Ohio and Texas, two battleground states that could end Clinton's increasingly shaky bid to be the Democratic party's presidential nominee.

Clinton has lost 11 straight contests to Obama — including an overseas vote Thursday for support among Americans living abroad.

Observers say Clinton needs to sweep Ohio and Texas to stay in the game, an opinion shared even by her husband, former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

Obama is outpacing Clinton in fundraising and the number of delegates required to earn the Democratic nomination at the party convention in Denver in August.

In the delegate count, Obama had 1,358 and Clinton had 1,264. It takes 2,025 delegates to claim the nomination.

Differing opinions on Cuba

While the debate had its heated moments, the two candidates conceded that they share the same ideas on many pressing national and international issues.

Sitting side-by-side, Clinton nodded as Barack made points on the economy, illegal immigration and a border fence with Mexico.

But the two candidates disagreed right off the top of the debate about whether they would hold talks with Raul Castro before he implements any political reforms in Cuba.

Clinton said she would need evidence of reform, while Obama said he favours a meeting without preconditions now that Fidel Castro has formally stepped down.

The two also squared off on the war in Iraq, with Obama criticizing Clinton's vote to give U.S. President George W. Bush the authority to wage war.

"I think Senator Clinton was wrong on her judgment on that," Obama said.

Reference to Monica Lewinsky

While Clinton was booed midway through the debate, she earned cheers when she softened at the end, making a veiled reference to her husband's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, and his subsequent impeachment.

"I think everybody here knows I've lived through some tough times," she said, but noted that the hardest thing she's lived through is the hunt for supporters in the presidential race.

She then promptly shook hands with Obama and noted how grateful she is to be in the race with him.

"I am honoured to be here with Barack Obama," she said, as the audience gave her a roaring standing ovation. "I'm absolutely honoured."

Her campaign team was quick to jump on her softened approach as evidence that she still has a shot at her party's nomination.

"What we saw in the final moments in that debate is why Hillary Clinton is the next president of the United States," the team said in a press release.

"Her strength, her life experience, her compassion. She's tested and ready. It was the moment she retook the reins of this race and showed women and men why she is the best choice."

With files from the Canadian Press and the Associated Press