JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez reports the latest on the presidential campaign.
RAY SUAREZ: While political junkies far beyond Ohio tuned in to last night’s Democratic debate in Cleveland, Republican front-runner John McCain, campaigning in Tyler, Texas, made a point of saying he didn’t.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: And, by the way, I am unembarrassed to tell you — I’m not embarrassed to tell you that I did not watch the Democrat debate last night.
But I am told that Senator Obama made the statement that if al-Qaida came back to Iraq after he withdraws, after the American troops are withdrawn, then he would send military troops back if al-Qaida established a base in Iraq.
I have some news: al-Qaida is in Iraq, al-Qaida — it’s called al-Qaida in Iraq. And, my friends, they wouldn’t — if we left, they wouldn’t be establishing a base. They wouldn’t be establishing a base. They’d be taking a country.
And I’m not going to allow that to happen, my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to al-Qaida.
RAY SUAREZ: Rallying supporters at Ohio State University in Columbus, Barack Obama responded almost immediately.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: McCain thought that he could make a clever point by saying, “Well, let me give you some news, Barack. Al-Qaida is in Iraq,” like I wasn’t reading the papers, like I didn’t know what was going on out there.
Well, first of all, I do know that al-Qaida is in Iraq, and that’s why I’ve said we should continue to strike al-Qaida targets.
But I have some news for John McCain. And that is that there was no such thing as al-Qaida in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.
RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton made her pitch to voters in Zanesville, Ohio, ahead of next Tuesday’s contest.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: So it’s our chance now to seize the 21st century. I am absolutely convinced that our best days can be ahead for America, that all of the concerns we have, we can handle them. But we’re going to have to be serious about how we do it.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, Host, “NBC Nightly News”: Thanks to our candidates for being here on a snowy night in the great city of Cleveland, Ohio.
Clash over health care, tactics
RAY SUAREZ: At their 20th and possibly final Democratic debate last night in Cleveland, Senators Clinton and Obama clashed almost immediately, first over campaign tactics and health care.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: ... the choices that Senator Obama's campaign has made regarding fliers and mailers and other information that has been put out about my health care plan and my position on NAFTA have been very disturbing to me.
And, unfortunately, it's a debate we should have that is accurate and is based in facts about my plan and Senator Obama's plan, because my plan will cover everyone and it will be affordable.
And on many occasions, independent experts have concluded exactly that. And Senator Obama's plan does not cover everyone. It would leave, give or take, 15 million people out.
RAY SUAREZ: Obama said he had his own grievances; he just hadn't brought them up.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I think it's very important to understand the context of this, and that is that Senator Clinton has, her campaign at least, has constantly sent out negative attacks on us, e-mail, robo-calls, fliers, television ads, radio calls, and we haven't whined about it, because I understand that's the nature of these campaigns.
But to suggest somehow that our mailing is somehow different from the kinds of approaches that Senator Clinton has taken throughout this campaign I think is simply not accurate.
Obama hammers Clinton on NAFTA
RAY SUAREZ: After a thorough discussion of their health care plans, the questions turned to NAFTA, the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. It's extremely unpopular among Ohio's blue-collar workers.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: And this is a tough one, depending on who you ask. The Houston Chronicle has called it a "big win" for Texas, but Ohio Democratic Senator Brown, your colleagues in the Senate, has called it a "job-killing" trade agreement.
Senator Clinton, you've campaigned in south Texas. You've campaigned here in Ohio. Who's right?
RAY SUAREZ: Clinton prefaced her answer with a swipe at what she says is the media's gentle treatment of Obama.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time? And I don't mind. You know, I'll be happy to field them, 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.
I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues, but I'm happy to answer it.
You know, I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning. I didn't have a public position on it because I was part of the administration. But when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic.
RAY SUAREZ: But Obama argued that Clinton hadn't always held that stance.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I think that it is inaccurate for Senator Clinton to say that she's always opposed NAFTA. In her campaign for Senate, she said that NAFTA, on balance, had been good for New York and good for America.
Clinton hits back foreign policy
RAY SUAREZ: There were also questions on America's challenges in Iraq, Russia and Pakistan, which Clinton used to imply Obama's foreign policy credentials were lacking.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Last summer, he basically threatened to bomb Pakistan, which I don't think was a particularly wise position to take. I have long advocated a much tougher approach to Musharraf and to Pakistan and have pushed the White House to do that.
And I disagree with his continuing to say that he would meet with some of the worst dictators in the world without preconditions and without the real, you know, understanding of what we would get from it.
And I think that standing on that stage with Senator McCain -- if he is, as appears to be, the nominee -- I will have a much better case to make on a range of the issues that really America must confront going forward.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I never said I would bomb Pakistan. What I said was that if we have actionable intelligence against bin Laden or other key al-Qaida officials and we -- and Pakistan is unwilling or unable to strike against them, we should.
And just several days ago, in fact, this administration did exactly that and took out the third-ranking al-Qaida official. That is the position that we should have taken in the first place.
My claim is not simply based on a speech. It is based on the judgments that I've displayed during the course of my service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while I've been in the United States Senate and as somebody who, during the course of this campaign, I think has put forward a plan that will provide a clean break against Bush and Cheney.
And that is how we're going to be able to debate John McCain. Having a debate with John McCain where your positions were essentially similar until you started running for president I think does not put you in a strong position.RAY SUAREZ: Ohio and Texas hold their primaries on Tuesday, as do Rhode Island and Vermont.