MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Their debate truce obliterated in a blizzard of recriminations, Democratic candidates for president on Monday questioned one another's honesty and fitness for the White House in a televised confrontation notable for its nasty tone.
The harshness of their exchanges was an odd coda to a day in which the Democrats paid tribute to the nonviolent movement propelled by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated Monday and in whose honor the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and CNN sponsored the two-hour session.
The bitterness was particularly acute between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, who belittled each other as if opening their opposition-research files and flinging out the contents. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards forced his way into the debate at several points as if to remind voters of a calmer, less divisive option.
The sharpest exchange came near the opening of the debate, when Obama was asked to respond to criticism by Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, that the Illinois senator's economic stimulus proposal doesn't add up. Obama tersely denied it, leading Clinton to mock his comments.
"Your record and what you say does matter," Clinton told Obama. "And when it comes to a lot of the issues that are important in this race, it is sometimes difficult to understand what Sen. Obama has said, because as soon as he is confronted on it, he says that's not what he meant."
Clinton went on to describe Obama as saying that "he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10-15 years." Actually, he had told interviewers in Nevada several days ago that Republicans had cornered the market in ideas for much of that time -- but he had not endorsed them.
In a brutal back-and-forth of interruptions, Obama replied:
"You just said that I complimented the Republican ideas. That is not true."
He pointed to his background as a community organizer during those years to contrast himself with Clinton.
"What I said," Obama told her, "and I will provide you with the quote, what I said is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative public figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to, because while I was working on those streets, watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart."
Clinton -- who has been criticized during the campaign for not standing up to the merchandising giant while on its board from 1986 to 1992 -- responded that she had taken stands against Republican programs.
"And I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago," she said.
Obama, offered an opportunity later to respond to Clinton's reference, said that as a law firm associate he had represented a church group that partnered with businessman Antoin Rezko. Obama said he worked on the matter for five hours.
Rezko, one of Obama's earliest patrons, is scheduled to go on trial next month on federal charges alleging he joined a scheme to force investment firms seeking business from Illinois state pension funds to pay kickbacks. Obama is not alleged to be involved in any wrongdoing, and on Saturday he announced that he would donate to charity $40,350 in past political contributions from seven Chicago-area individuals who appear to be linked to Rezko.
Edwards at several times in the debate presented himself as the sole candidate thinking of voters as the other two fired on each other.
"I also want to know on behalf of voters here in South Carolina, this kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get healthcare? How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?" he asked, facing the audience.
"We have got to understand this is not about us personally. It is about," he said, as the audience interrupted with cheers, "what we are trying to do for this country and what we believe in."
For his part, Edwards criticized both of his rivals. He took on Clinton when she declined his call for banning lobbyists from the White House.
Yet while he has joined with Obama to criticize Clinton in past debates -- resulting in a sympathy surge for her, political analysts believe -- on Monday he took aim at Obama as well. He joined with Clinton to disparage Obama's vote against a ceiling of 30% on interest charges for credit cards.
"You've criticized Hillary, you've criticized me for our votes," he told Obama. "All I'm saying is what's fair is fair."
The contentiousness of the debate marked a breathtaking turn from the genteel, insult-free debate before Saturday's caucuses in Nevada. The behavior Monday underscored the stakes in South Carolina's Saturday primary.