Clinton, Obama point fingers at aides

Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama blamed aides and campaign surrogates Tuesday night for fueling a campaign controversy over race, jointly pledging on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. to put the matter behind them.At a debate in which the two sparred almost cordially, Obama suggested Clinton had taken a page from President Bush’s political playbook with an earlier statement that the next president could expect to be tested quickly by terrorists.

“When Senator Clinton uses the specter of a terrorist attack with a new prime minister during a campaign, I think that is part and parcel with what we’ve seen, the use of the fear of terrorism in scoring political points, and I think that’s a mistake,” he said.

Asked by NBC’s Tim Russert whether she had meant to say terrorists would test Obama more than her, she replied, “No, of course not,” before adding, “it matters who’s president.”

Clinton, Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, the only white man among the candidates on stage, settled in for their debate as the former first lady won a meaningless Michigan presidential primary, a contest held in violation of party rules.

The debate also unfolded four days before the party-sanctioned Nevada caucuses, the next for-keeps contest in the wide-open race for the party’s presidential nomination.

Race dominated the debate at the outset, after several days of back-and-forth that left many Democrats worried about an adverse impact on the party’s prospects for the general election.

Obama said “not only in hindsight, but going forward,” he regretted that his staff had prodded reporters to pursue the issue.

“Our supporters, our staff, get overzealous. They start saying things that I would not say,” added the most viable black candidate in history.

“We both have exuberant and sometimes uncontrollable supporters,” Clinton said in the opening moments of a two-hour, round-table debate televised on MSNBC. “We need to get this campaign where it should be,” said the former first lady, seeking to become the first woman to occupy the White House.

She said comments by black businessman Robert Johnson over the weekend were inappropriate, but sidestepped when asked whether she would bar him from playing a role in her campaign. Johnson made an evident reference to Obama’s youthful drug use – although he denied that was his intent.

Obama won the kickoff Iowa caucuses less than two weeks ago, and Clinton countered with an upset victory last Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary. Edwards is winless. After Nevada, the South Carolina Democratic primary is Jan. 26, then the campaign explodes with nearly two dozen contests on Feb. 5.

There was a political reason for the pleasantries, underscored when Edwards was asked whether he and Obama had teamed up to attack Clinton in a debate just before the New Hampshire primary.

“I don’t think it was that way,” he said. “My job as a candidate for president is to speak the truth as I see it.”

Clinton won the primary in an upset three days after the debate, carried to victory over Obama by an unexpectedly large turnout by women voters.

At the same time, there were limits to the comraderie, and Clinton, in particular, took several opportunities to challenge her rivals.

Asked whether Edwards and Obama were prepared to sit in the White House, she said “that’s what the voters have to decide.