Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama stressed his "stalwart" support for Israel and his ties to American Jews, during a presidential debate in Cleveland Tuesday night with rival candidate Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Obama and Clinton exchanged verbal blows in their 20th Democratic debate, but neither appeared to undermine the other's position to an extent that would dramatically affect the race.
The debate, which focused mainly on domestic and economic issues, opened with a long argument on the candidates' health insurance program. The Israeli issue was addressed in detail later on.
During the debate, moderator Tim Russert pressed Obama on the endorsement he got from the anti-Semitic African-American leader Louis Farrakhan.
"I have been very clear in my denunciations of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments," Obama said: "I did not solicit this support."
Obama leveled criticism on Farrakhan's anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements, calling them "unacceptable and reprehensible."
He added that he has always been "a stalwart friend of Israel's," and said he considers Israel to be one of the U.S.' "most important allies in the region [Mideast]." He added, "I think that their security is sacrosanct."
In response to Obama's remarks, Clinton said Obama was not sufficiently direct, and argued that there was a difference between denunciation and rejection of the endorsement.
She said that in her Senate race in 2000, she had explicitly rejected the backing of the Independent Party, whose leaders had also made anti-Semitic statements.
"You asked specifically if he [Obama] would reject it [the endorsement], and there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting," she said.
"If the word 'reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point and I would reject and denounce [Farrakhan]" Obama responded.
Obama spoke about this same issue a few days ago as he was meeting a group of Jewish activists in Cleveland.
Talking about Farrakhan - and about anti-Semitism among African-Americans, which he also denounced in his speech on Martin Luther King Day - Obama touched a sensitive nerve when he was talking about one possibility that's inherent to his candidacy: the chance to restore the alliance between blacks and Jews.