Hillary Clinton launched a searing attack on surging rival Barack Obama, as polls showed yesterday he could inflict a second body blow to her White House hopes in the upcoming New Hampshire primary.
Clinton on Saturday used a tense face-to-face debate, three days before the next crucial test to argue her rival was inconsistent, inexperienced and more fond of words than action.
"He could have a pretty good debate with himself," a steely Clinton said, trying to pin the damaging "flip-flop" label on Obama on hot-button issues like healthcare, national security and Iraq.
Clinton came out swinging after a humiliating third place in Thursday's leadoff Iowa caucuses, which validated Obama's soaring message of hope, change and cleansing the poisoned politics of the US.
"You have changed positions within three years on a range of issues that you put forth when you ran for the Senate and have changed," she said. "You said that records matter."
She also argued his powerful rhetoric did not mean he would be effective in driving reform and said her quest to be the first woman president showed she was an agent of change.
"Words are not actions. And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action," she said.
Obama, stature enhanced by his Iowa triumph, avoided serious gaffes, appeared unruffled by Clinton's attacks and smoothly deflected them with his own political message.
"What I think is important that we don't do is try to distort each other's records as election day approaches here in New Hampshire. What I think the people of America are looking for are people who are going to be straight about the issues," Obama said.
Newly published polls meanwhile showed the effect of Obama's Iowa momentum.
In a CNN/WMUR survey, one of the first since the Iowa caucuses, Obama and Clinton were locked up on 33 percent of likely primary voters. Obama was up four points from a similar poll late last month and Clinton was down one.
Another poll, by the Concord Monitor newspaper, had Obama with a slender one point lead over Clinton, 34 percent to 33 percent.
The Clinton campaign rejected the idea Obama was vaulting from victory in Iowa, to a win in New Hampshire tomorrow, saying his poll "bounce" was negligible.
In a rare moment of levity, Clinton was asked why people appeared to like Obama more.
"Well that hurts my feelings," Clinton said, sparking laughter from the audience.
"But I'll try to go on. He's very likable. I agree with that ... I don't think I'm that bad," said Clinton, showing the softer side of her campaign has tried to highlight to head off claims that she has a polarizing character.
Obama, adding bite to a sugary exchange, joked: "You're likeable enough, Hillary," before she went back on the attack.
"In 2000, we, unfortunately, ended up with a president who people said they wanted to have a beer with, who said he wanted to be a uniter, not a divider. I'm offering 35 years of experience making change," Clinton said.
The Republican debate was the more bruising.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Republican Iowa caucuses, had to defend his remark that US President George W. Bush's foreign policy had been arrogant.
Arizona Senator John McCain, who tied for third in Iowa but leads the polls in New Hampshire, said he was the one Republican consistently right on Iraq.