Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton struck a cordial tone in the early stages of their first one-on-one presidential debate on Thursday but differed on the right approach to health care coverage for 47 million uninsured Americans.
The two Democratic White House contenders dropped the angry and confrontational approach of their last debate in South Carolina and said their similarities were far greater than their differences.
"I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign; I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over," said Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black U.S. president.
Clinton, a New York senator who would be the first woman president, said the Republican White House contenders were offering "more of the same."
"Just by looking at us, you can tell we aren't more of the same," she said at the debate at Los Angeles' Kodak Theatre. "We will change our country."
The debate is the last one for the two contenders ahead of Tuesday's Democratic nominating contests in 22 states, the biggest single day of voting in U.S. presidential nominating history.
Clinton and Obama are in a tight battle for the right to represent Democrats in November's presidential election. They split the first four significant nominating contests, with Obama winning Iowa and South Carolina and Clinton winning New Hampshire and Nevada.
Asked for their biggest policy differences, both candidates focused on health care. Clinton's plan requires all Americans to have coverage, and she criticized Obama's plan because it could leave up to 15 million people uninsured.
"You have to bite this bullet, you have to say 'Yes, we will try to get to universal health care'," she said.
Praise for Edwards
Obama said anyone who wanted health care could get it under his plan, which would focus on bringing down costs.
The debate was their first meeting since Obama crushed Clinton and John Edwards in a South Carolina landslide on Saturday, driving Edwards from the race. Both Clinton and Obama praised Edwards in their opening statements.
"I want to acknowledge a candidate who left the race this week, John Edwards, who did such an outstanding job elevating the issues of poverty and the plight of working families all across the country," Obama said as the debate opened.
It also was the first debate since last week's fierce South Carolina debate that featured harsh and increasingly personal attacks between the two senators.
That sparked a week of bitter attacks and counter-attacks between Obama, Clinton and Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton -- although they all have eased off the criticism since Obama's win.
Earlier on Thursday, popular California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed Republican presidential candidate John McCain, giving the Arizona senator a boost in his drive to gain his party's nomination for the White House.
"He is a great American hero and an extraordinary leader. This is why I am endorsing him to be our next president of the United States," the actor-turned-politician said.
California is the largest prize among the states that hold nominating contests on "Super Tuesday". McCain, the Republican front-runner, already leads state polls over former Massachusetts Gov Mitt Romney.