Clinton, Obama duel as vital votes loom

Rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stepped up their battle on Monday on the eve of the next primary showdown, as the Democratic Party head urged unity in the race to rout Republicans from the White House in November.

“It’s not about Hillary Clinton, it’s not about Barack Obama. It is about our country,” Democratic national committee chairperson Howard Dean told party faithful gathered at a dinner.

Both Clinton and Obama promised wary Americans a new beginning in speeches at the event, both confident they are the best candidate against Republican John McCain in November’s presidential election.

Obama hopes to land a knockout in Tuesday’s primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, as Clinton is fighting to ignite her long-odds comeback bid.

The candidates spent Sunday touring rust-belt Indiana beseeching supporters to ensure a high turnout.

Clinton showed up at a Dairy Queen ice-cream store, while Obama held a giant picnic with his family, as his six-year-old, Sasha, urged people to “Vote for Daddy”.

The former first lady was asked on ABC television whether she had any regrets about threatening to “totally obliterate” Iran if it used nuclear weapons against Israel.

“Why would I have any regrets? I am asked a question about what I would do if Iran attacked our ally, a country that many of us have a great deal of, you know, connection with and feeling for,” she said.

But Obama accused Clinton of emulating what he called President George Bush’s “foreign policy of bluster and sabre-rattling and tough talk”.

The Clinton campaign took hope from polls showing the rivals locked in a close race in Indiana and cutting Obama’s once huge lead in North Carolina.

Clinton spokesperson Phil Singer said that “it’s clear the Obama campaign is running scared right now”.

“They’re currently watching our candidate catch fire on the stump and generate a significant amount of momentum going into election day.”

The Obama campaign hit back though with an ad excoriating Clinton’s call for a temporary moratorium on federal gasoline taxes, which the Illinois senator has ridiculed as a “gimmick”.

Obama again sought to quell a controversy sparked by racially tinged comments by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, which rattled his campaign in April.

He accused Wright of putting “gasoline on the fire” last week with a combative round of public appearances, and said the reverend’s statements were “fundamentally” at odds with his own vision.

A new CBS/New York Times poll gave Obama an 11-point lead over Republican candidate McCain, 51% to 40%, in a hypothetical general election match-up. Last Tuesday, at the height of the latest furore over Wright, the contest had been tied.

Clinton led McCain in the same poll by 12 points.

The former first lady trails Obama in nominating contests and pledged delegates, so her last hope is to persuade Democratic party superdelegates—the party bosses who will now decide this contest—that Obama is too risky to run against McCain.

“When the process finishes in early June, people can look at all the various factors and decide who will be the strongest candidate,” Clinton (60) said in Indianapolis, Indiana.

“I feel like I am going to be able to stand up to Senator McCain,” said Clinton, who promised a “game-changer” on Tuesday, after which only six contests will be left in the Democratic nominating marathon.

Conventional wisdom has it that Clinton has to at least win Indiana to stop a stampede of superdelegates towards Obama, and to stay in the race.

If she could pull off a surprise win in North Carolina, she could change the race.

But some Democrats are increasingly concerned the race could drag on as it has thus far—undecided.

“There are ugly ways this could end,” warned Bob Shrum, a top Democratic strategist.
“A contest that goes all the way to the convention, that is deeply divisive ... We could have a bonfire of the vanities that leads Democrats to lose the unlosable election.”

A new Zogby poll gave Obama the lead in North Carolina—48% to Clinton’s 39%. But the race in Indiana, a true battleground, was much tighter with Obama on 43% to Clinton’s 41%, well within the four-point margin of error.—AFP

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