LOS ANGELES -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama went head-to-head last night for the first time in a serious-minded debate but studiously steered clear of personal attacks.
For more than 90 minutes, the finalists in the Democratic presidential contest unleashed their inner policy wonk as they argued dispassionately over their differences on health care coverage, the subprime mortgage crisis, immigration, going to war in Iraq and the pace of a U.S. withdrawal.
Clinton was pressed by moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN on whether she was wrong to have voted to authorize the use of military force against Iraq in 2002, prompting a prolonged response that she had made a "reasoned judgment" and did not consider her position a vote to go to war.
Obama responded by turning her answer against the main argument of her candidacy, that she has superior experience and qualifications for the job of commander in chief.
"Senator Clinton, I think, fairly, has claimed that she's got the experience on Day One. And part of the argument that I'm making in this campaign is that it is important to be right on Day One," said Obama, referring to his opposition to the war resolution in a speech he made at that time.
Seeking to avoid the sort of backlash that hurt Clinton in the most recent primary, in South Carolina, they kept their encounter cordial and substantive.
Clinton, calling herself a "problem-solver," offered a range of practical solutions to problems such as health care and the home mortgage squeeze. Obama portrayed himself as a unifier who attracted a new generation of voters and could inspire the nation to tackle tough issues.
Clinton is favored to win California's primary next week, the largest of 22 Democratic contests on Super Tuesday, but Obama has been gaining in recent days since his victory in South Carolina and endorsement by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and his niece Caroline Kennedy.
Clinton got off the most crowd-pleasing line of the night when asked how she could claim to be an agent of change after the country had been through so many years of Bushes and Clintons in the White House.
"It did take a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush and it might take another one to clean up after the second one," she said to prolonged applause from a well-heeled audience at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, scene of the Academy Awards show and American Idols finals. Among those on hand were singer Stevie Wonder, comic actor Jason Alexander, actor Louis Gossett Jr. and director Rob Reiner.
An exchange over driver's licenses for illegal immigrants was typical of the evening's tone, as Obama gently chided Clinton for taking six weeks to reach what he said was a reasonable position on the issue.
Clinton responded, evenly and without rancor, that Obama himself had stumbled over the same question at a debate during that period, and he was forced to nod affirmatively that she was right.
Both said their differences paled in comparison to positions that the Republican candidates have taken on issues such as taxes, immigration and Iraq.
Obama, who opposed the Iraq war from the start, said he would be better suited to take on John McCain, or whomever the Republicans nominate, "because I will offer a clear contrast."
That prompted Blitzer to observe to Clinton that Obama's remark was "a swipe at you."
"Really?" she responded. "We're having such a good time. We are. We're having a wonderful time," and let the moment pass.
The debate, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and Politico, was the first since John Edwards quit the race this week, and each candidate made multiple efforts to appeal to his former supporters, praising his efforts to elevate poverty and health care for the uninsured during his campaign.
There were also references to the fact that their party is on the verge of having the first major party ticket headed by either a woman or an African-American.
"It is a testimony to the Democratic Party and it is a testimony to this country that we have the opportunity to make history," said Obama.
Clinton later marveled over the fact she and Obama were the survivors after a long and often grueling struggle.
Their last encounter, 10 days earlier, was far more acrimonious and had featured the most heated exchanges of the campaign. Clinton brought up the name of an indicted Obama donor and friend, Tony Rezko, and accused Obama of representing him in a legal case involving "his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago." Obama retorted acidly that he was working on behalf of displaced workers on the streets of that city while Clinton was "a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart."
Those exchanges came near the end of a fierce primary fight in South Carolina. An aggressive anti-Obama effort by Bill Clinton in that state helped generate support for an Obama landslide on election day. Since then, the former president has backed off, but the aftershocks of that battle have eroded Clinton's standing around the country.