With the field of candidates whittled down to just two, Sen. Barack Obama painted the choice Democrats now face in stark terms Wednesday, arguing that he is the most electable in November, because Republicans are armed and ready for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"When I am the nominee, the Republicans won't be able to make this election about the past," he told an overflow crowd of more than 10,000 at the University of Denver in a speech filled with sharp jabs at his rival.
"That's what the Republicans are going to want to do," he said. "They are going to want us to look backwards, but they won't be able to do that with me. Because you will have already chosen the future."
Clinton aides were quick to swat back at Obama for characterizing the New York senator and former first lady as a polarizing figure and emblematic of an outdated style of politics. "His words in that speech were a summary of all the negative attacks, almost a 'greatest hits' of negative attacks he has launched throughout this campaign," Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster and campaign strategist, said in a conference call with reporters. "They are false. They are personal. They are unwarranted."
Speaking in the city where the Democratic Party will hold its nominating convention seven months from now, Obama started out by praising the "all-star cast" of candidates who have run for the party's presidential nomination this year, all but one of whom has left the race: Sen. Christopher J. Dodd; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich; Gov. Bill Richardson; former Sen. John Edwards, who dropped out Wednesday; and Clinton.
But that was pretty much where the Illinois senator's praise of Clinton ended. He spoke of how Democrats could win in November and build on their majority in Congress: "not by nominating a candidate who will unite the other party against us, but by choosing one who can unite this country around a movement for change."
His barbs never mentioned his rival by name, but Obama took a direct slap at Clinton's past divisiveness and her failure to achieve healthcare reform as first lady or senator.
A mother with a sick child and no insurance "can't afford to wait another four years -- or another 15 years -- to get healthcare because we've put forward a nominee who can't bring Democrats and Republicans together to get it done," he said.
The best way to win a debate with Arizona Sen. John McCain, he said, is not to have Clinton's record of agreement with the Republican front-runner on critical foreign policy issues.
"Talking tough and tallying up your years in Washington is no substitute for judgment, and courage, and clear plans. It's not enough to say you'll be ready from Day One," he said, referring to a line in Clinton's stump speech. "You have to be right from Day One."
Making a quick trip to the state that launched her husband's presidency, Clinton urged voters in Little Rock, Ark., to send another Clinton to the White House.
She stressed her deep ties to the state. "I moved to come here in 1974, was married in Fayetteville in 1975. My daughter was born in Baptist Hospital in 1980. And those were 18 of the best years that anyone could have had. And we worked on so many important concerns that affected the people of Arkansas."
Though the African American vote appears to be coalescing around Obama, Clinton signaled that she was not writing off a constituency that was a key component of Bill Clinton's political base.
In a speech before a predominantly black audience at the National Baptist Convention in Atlanta, Clinton talked about her reliance on prayer. "I have been a praying person, luckily, my entire life. . . . Had I not been a praying person, one week in the White House would have turned me into a praying person," she said.
The reception was polite, though not especially warm. Both Clintons have faced criticism over statements that seemed to inject race into the 2008 campaign.
Clinton was asked at a news conference Wednesday whether she had told her husband to ease up on her rival. She did not answer directly, but did not deny it.
"I'm very proud of his promoting my candidacy and very happy that he is able to travel as widely as he has been doing, along with my daughter, but this is my campaign," she said.
La Ganga reported from Denver and Nicholas from Little Rock.