Taking a break from recent verbal combat, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both moved Friday night to ease concerns that their fight for the Democratic presidential nomination has become too divisive and could undercut voter turnout and support in November.
Speaking to a state Democratic rally here designed to promote party unity, the rivals delivered impassioned appeals to about 3,000 cheering party activists but largely ignored each other.
Clinton, who spoke first, mentioned Obama only at the start of her speech, promising that "if he is the nominee," she would gladly support him. "And if I am the nominee, I know he'll do the same," she added.
Obama soon returned the favor, vowing to support Clinton "in a heartbeat" if she wins the nomination, and saying he knows she would back him. "Our differences pale in comparison to our differences with the other party," he said.
The two senators appeared back to back at a Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in the J.S. Dorton Arena, on the state fairgrounds, a key political event before Tuesday's crucial North Carolina primary. Indiana also holds an important nominating contest that day.
With 115 delegates at stake, North Carolina is the largest state still to vote before the party convention in August. Although polls show the race here is tightening, Obama is widely favored to win because of his broad support in the state's large African American population.
Clinton added a town hall meeting and three get-out-the-vote rallies to her schedule for today, a sign that the New York senator's campaign still considers the state competitive.
Both candidates made a point of lavishly praising former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth. Edwards withdrew as a presidential candidate on Jan. 30 and has resisted pleas from both sides for an endorsement. A former senior aide said Edwards, a superdelegate in the party, is unlikely to endorse before next week.
Both candidates also lambasted Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, describing him as a virtual clone of President Bush. "We cannot afford four more years of George Bush's foreign policy," Obama said.
State officials predict a record Democratic turnout on Tuesday. New registration and early voting already are up sharply, according to Gary Bartlett, executive director of the state board of elections.
"We've never had activity like we have now," he said. "I think we're going to break all records for the state."
Polls have shown Obama's once-overwhelming lead in North Carolina shrinking to single digits in recent weeks.
During that time, he lost decisively to Clinton in the hard-fought Pennsylvania primary. The Illinois senator also was forced to renounce ties to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., after previously resisting pressure to break with him.
"We've had a rough couple of weeks, I won't deny that," Obama told a news conference in Indianapolis earlier Friday. Voters, he acknowledged, were "upset by very offensive language by my former pastor."
By all accounts, Clinton also has been helped here by her husband, who has campaigned as surrogate in chief. The former president has visited more than 50 small and medium-size North Carolina towns in recent weeks, wolfing down barbecue, shaking countless hands, hugging friends and largely avoiding the spotlight.
"He's going to these little places, giving great speeches, going until 11 at night," said Jim Hunt, a former four-term governor who has not made an endorsement. "He's helped her tremendously."
Earlier in the day, the two candidates sparred over a proposed summer suspension of the federal gasoline tax. Clinton, who supports the proposal, called for Congress to vote on it. Obama dismissed the idea as a political stunt that would cost thousands of jobs while doing little for consumers.
Separately, Clinton appeared to pick up two more delegates from the April 22 Pennsylvania primary.
An Associated Press analysis of newly released voting results showed Clinton increasing her total from the contest to 85 delegates, versus 73 for Obama.
The results also showed Clinton winning 54.6% of the Pennsylvania vote, to 45.4% for Obama.
According to the AP, Obama still leads in overall delegates, 1,736.5 to Clinton's 1,605.5.