Leaders to debate face to face as race row grows

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama come face to face on Tuesday night for the first time since their two camps embarked on the dangerous strategy of trying to extract political gain from the race issue.

After Obama’s victory in Iowa and Clinton’s in New Hampshire, the two candidates, who are meeting for a debate in Las Vegas, are looking to break the tie in Nevada on Saturday or South Carolina the following week.

The increasingly ugly exchanges over race reflect the importance of South Carolina, where about half the Democratic voters are African-American.

The Obama campaign on Monday accused Clinton of being “engaged in the politics of personal destruction”.

The Clinton team has been forced on the defensive over a series of remarks that have been interpreted as racially tinged. The most contentious was a comment from Clinton that suggested she was trying to minimise the role of Martin Luther King in the civil rights era.

The Clinton campaign accused Obama of distorting the remarks. Obama rejected the charges.

Meanwhile, Bob Johnson, a founder of the Black Entertainment Network, who is among Clinton’s most prominent African-American supporters, revived the issue of Obama’s teenage drug use, which he has written about in his memoir, Dreams From My Father.
During an introduction for Clinton at an event, Johnson said Hillary and Bill Clinton were engaged in black issues when Obama “was doing something in the neighbourhood: I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in his book”.

Johnson later said in a statement released by the Clinton campaign that his comments referred to Obama’s work as a community organiser in Chicago “and nothing else. Any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect.” The Obama campaign demanded an apology.

A New Hampshire Clinton campaign official, Bill Shaheen, resigned last month after suggesting Democrats should be wary of nominating Obama because of his past drug use.

In what seems to have been another misjudged remark, Obama’s wife, Michelle, campaigning for him in South Carolina, also brought up race. Addressing African-Americans sceptical about his ability to win, she said Iowa, which is predominantly white, voted for Obama. “Ain’t no black people in Iowa,” she said.

The language could alienate some white voters and the comment is also wrong: there are 75 000 African-Americans in Iowa.

John Edwards, who is trailing at 11%, came down on the side of Obama in the race row. Since a debate on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, the former North Carolina senator has gone out of his way to find common cause with Obama. The association has led to speculation that he is vying for a spot as Obama’s vice-presidential running mate.

The intensity of the Clinton-Obama contest is reflected in Nevada, where the two are locked in a legal dispute over the role of unions. A pro-Clinton union is challenging the caucus plans arguing that it would give an advantage to the hotel workers’ union, which has endorsed Obama. Obama’s supporters counter that the legal challenge would disenfranchise the largely Latino and African-American members of the union.

A poll for the Washington Post-ABC News on Monday showed Obama closing the gap nationwide, with Clinton on 42%, down 11% since last month, and Obama on 37%, up 14. But a national CBS News-New York Times poll had Clinton on 42% to Obama’s 27%, almost unchanged. - Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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