/ 26 February 2008

Cleveland debate is final chance for Clinton to woo voters

Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama go head to head on Tuesday in their final showdown before the crucial Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4.

The Democratic debate in Cleveland could be Clinton’s last chance to impress voters and attempt to halt some of the momentum Obama has gained after 11 straight victories.

In another boost for Obama, former candidate Christopher Dodd was set to endorse him on Tuesday, a Democratic official close to Dodd told the Associated Press. The Connecticut senator’s support should help Obama in the major contests in Ohio and Texas.

The mood in previous debates has run from acrimonious to conciliatory, and how the two senators treat each other on Tuesday night is anyone’s guess — although a bitter row that erupted on Monday between the two camps could set the tone.

The two campaign teams squared off over a photograph of Obama in native African garb resembling traditional Muslim dress. Obama’s campaign accused Clinton’s staff of mounting a desperate dirty tricks operation, feeding into false claims on US websites that he is a Muslim.

His campaign manager, David Plouffe, described it as ”the most shameful, offensive fearmongering we’ve seen from either party in this election”. Obama has had to spend much of the campaign stressing he is a Christian, not a Muslim, and did not study at a madrasa.

Aides for Clinton, who is fighting a last-ditch battle to keep her White House hopes alive, initially tried to brush off the furore, but later denied having anything to do with the distribution of the picture.

Clinton has lost every primary since February 5 and was criticised for her campaign’s lavish spending on consultants, Las Vegas hotel rooms, and Iowa caucus night festivities. If she loses Ohio and Texas, she will have a hard time justifying her continued presence in the race.

Obama has taken the lead in the all-important delegate count that will ultimately award the nomination at the Democratic convention in August. Obama currently has 1 362 delegates to Clinton’s 1 266, according to the latest Associated Press tally. A total of 2 025 is needed to secure the nomination.

Obama has also overtaken Clinton in national polling, overcoming her early double-digit lead, and is gaining on her in Ohio and Texas.

The picture showing Obama in a turban during a visit to Kenya in 2006 first appeared on the Drudge Report website. The site said it was circulated by Clinton’s staffers and quoted one saying: ”Wouldn’t we be seeing this on the cover of every magazine if it were [Clinton]?”

The picture was taken when Obama visited Africa as a senator. Obama, whose father was Kenyan, visited Wajir in north-east Kenya, close to the Somali and Ethiopian borders, and was dressed by locals as a Somali elder.

The Clinton team hit back at the criticism from Obama’s side, saying his team had turned the picture into a row to distract attention from a foreign policy speech she gave on Monday night.

The Obama campaign has repeatedly claimed it has been the target of dirty tricks by the Clinton team. A senior member of her staff, Bill Shaheen, had to resign last year after raising Obama’s admitted use of marijuana and cocaine as a youth.

A junior staffer resigned in December after forwarding an email suggesting Obama was a Muslim. In the South Carolina primary last month, Bill Clinton made race an issue. However, the tactics are widely believed to have contributed to a backlash against the Clintons among Democratics voters.

Plouffe described circulation of the picture as part of ”a disturbing pattern”. ”It’s exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties,” he said. The Obama team wheeled out Scott Gration, a retired air force general and Obama supporter, who was with the senator in Kenya, to explain the picture.

He said: ”Senator Obama was given an outfit and as the guest that he was, the great guest, he took this outfit and they encouraged him to try some of it on. It was a thing we all do.”

Maggie Williams, campaign manager for Clinton, played down the significance of the picture. ”If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed. Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely.”

In the Republican race John McCain, the party’s presumptive candidate, campaigned in Ohio on Monday. He told reporters he must convince a war-weary country that US policy in Iraq is succeeding to win the White House, or else he would lose. He then backed off the remark, saying merely that Iraq would be a part of voters’ judgement of his ability to handle national security.

The five-year-old Iraq conflict already is emerging as a fault line in the general election, with the Arizona senator calling for the US military to continue its mission while his Democratic opponents urge quick withdrawal. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008