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Clinton camp: Debate 'game changing'

From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones, NBC's Domenico Montanaro and Andrea Mitchell
Clinton aides held an hour-long conference call Thursday morning to highlight what they described as a winning debate performance last night by the New York senator, calling it a "game-changing" moment because it had raised new questions about Obama for voters and the press to consider.

Communications Director Howard Wolfson called the meetup in Philadelphia last night a "very important and illuminating debate" and said that in it Clinton showed "the strength of her leadership" in foreign policy, getting troops out of Iraq and other issues.

VIDEO: Tim Russert, moderator of "Meet the Press" talks with TODAY's Matt Lauer about the Democratic candidates' debate in Philadelphia.

Wolfson also framed the debate as one about forthrightness. He said Clinton "gave straight answers" on the tough questions (Bosnia, integrity) and Obama, by contrast, still has some explaining to do (on 1960s radical Bill Ayers and Obama's stance on gun rights).

"His campaign tried to dodge and weave" when it came to Obama's answering a questionnaire, in which Obama advocated for a ban on hand guns, Wolfson said. "Last night, he did not give an answer. Sen. Obama needs to be more forthright."

The campaign also continued to maintain that Clinton never made the "screw 'em" remark about Southern white voters after the 1994 midterm election losses -- as has been claimed by three people present.

Spokesman Phil Singer insisted that Don Baer and Bruce Reed, other participants in the Camp David 1995 meeting, have no recollection of Clinton making the comment and don't remember this as reflecting the tone of the meeting. Singer went on to say that if you look at the way Sen. Clinton has lived her life and the policies she's pursued, it's clear she's advocated a progressive agenda aimed at lifting all Americans up.

Benjamin Barber, a noted political scientist and author who was also at the meeting, wrote in his 2001 book that Clinton did say it. As we noted earlier, Barber confirmed to First Read that he heard her make the comment and added that he is a Clinton supporter and donor. FEC data shows Barber donated $1,000 to Clinton's campaign on Jan. 24.

"We've given you our answer on this," Wolfson said when questioned about Barber's account. "I do not know the gentleman in question." Wolfson added that he's "glad that he's a supporter" and that he's not quarreling with Barber's memory, "but the recollection of other people in room is different."

The campaign also continued its focus on the significance of the Pennsylvania primary. Singer highlighted Obama's financial advantages, that he's spending $3.4 million this week there, an amount Singer called ""earth-shattering, record-breaking, eye-popping, extraordinary."

"One has to wonder," Singer said, "if Sen. Obama cannot win under these circumstances, it will affirm, in my view, that … Sen. Clinton is the best candidate to be our standard-bearer going forward."

Of course, pouring money into the state is not just about the primary. Even if he were to lose the primary, but win the Democratic nomination, those funds could be seen as an investment in the general election.

Some other points:
- Aides were also pressed about Clinton's pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class and her commitment to setting military policy in Iraq -- specifically a policy to begin withdrawing troops within 60 days of her inauguration -- herself and directing the military commanders to carry it out. Aides said the purpose of a campaign was to lay out a candidate's goals and resisted the idea that her answers had boxed her in should she eventually become the nominee or president.

- When challenged on the matter of the two members of Ayers' Weather Underground group who were pardoned by President Clinton, Wolfson said the two women pardoned were contrite about their past actions whereas Ayers was not and that neither of the women had hosted an event for Clinton at their home, as Ayers had for Obama.

- Aides challenged Obama to agree to a debate in North Carolina -- Clinton has agreed to one, but he has not. Clinton herself has argued Obama only wanted to debate her in states where he was not in the lead.

- When asked whether Clinton's admission that Obama could win in November undermined or contradicted the electability argument she was making to superdelegates, Wolfson said it did not and said that saying somebody can win isn't the same as saying that he will win.