Democrats spar over race and legacies

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Racial politics, complaints and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy dominated discourse in the Democratic presidential contest Sunday as Nevada caucus winner Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama sought to shore up their bases for the South Carolina primary Jan. 26.

The new Republican presidential front-runner, John McCain, meanwhile, pivoted from his South Carolina win to Florida’s Jan. 29 primary, where he faces renewed combat with rivals Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney and a test from Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is trying to revive a deflated campaign.

The weekend results in Nevada and South Carolina firmed up the field in both parties as Clinton and McCain tried to portray their triumphs as proof that they were in commanding positions. But the front-runners had no time to bask Sunday, wheeling quickly to face the next primaries.

Stung by his Nevada loss and by tense exchanges between his and Clinton’s campaigns, Obama toughened his criticisms of the New York senator and her husband, former President Clinton.

Speaking Sunday night to about 3,500 supporters during a rally at the Metropolitan Convention Center in Columbia, S.C., Obama accused both Clintons of distorting his recent statement about President Reagan’s ability to “tap into the discontent of the American people.”

“When I see Sen. Clinton or President Clinton distort my words, say somehow that I was saying Republicans were the only ones who had good ideas since 1980, that is not a way to move the debate forward,” Obama said.

Clinton spokesman Phil Singer responded: “We understand Sen. Obama is frustrated by his loss in Nevada, but facts are facts.” Singer added that “President Clinton is a huge asset to our campaign and will continue talking to the American people.”

Obama had told the Reno Gazette-Journal last week that “Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. . . . He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”

“I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10 to 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom,” he said.

Sen. Clinton seized on the remark. “That’s not the way I remember the last 10 to 15 years,” she said, citing such Republican ideas as privatizing Social Security and eliminating the minimum wage.

Clinton and Obama spent Sunday in historic African American churches, talking about race in America in advance of today’s King holiday and a debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.

With the black vote in South Carolina and elsewhere coalescing around Obama, Clinton went to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on Sunday to firm up community support that has shown signs of hemorrhage despite backing from a long list of African American political leaders. The New York senator won an endorsement from the Harlem church’s influential pastor, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts.

Describing how she went as a teenager to hear King speak, Clinton recalled that King’s “transforming” speech “made it very clear that the civil rights movement was about economic justice” -- a campaign theme she has pressed hard as the nation grapples with a looming recession.

Despite overseeing a warm welcome, Butts acknowledged that his decision had been opposed by some parishioners. One man heckled Clinton outside the church. “Don’t come to Harlem and steal the black vote,” he sniped. Butts tried to reassure his flock, saying his move was not “a race-based decision.”

In Atlanta, Obama sought to consolidate his support from Southern black voters with an appearance in King’s own pulpit at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In lofty cadences, the Illinois senator spoke glowingly of King’s legacy but also reminded his audience of his recent dust-up with Clinton and several of her surrogates over what he considers racially tinged criticisms.

Decrying “policy feuds” that exploit racial divisions, Obama said the problem “crept into the campaign for president, with charges and counter-charges that served to obscure the issues instead of illuminating the critical choices we face as a nation.”

Though it was only a glancing reference, Obama’s senior aides said Sunday that in response to a series of tense charges and counter-charges between the two campaigns in Nevada, the candidate would toughen his own exchanges with the Clinton campaign -- and her husband -- as the South Carolina vote neared.

Along with his Sunday-night critique of the Clintons, Obama reportedly also weighed in against the couple during a taped interview to be broadcast on ABC’s “Good Morning America” today. “We need to be even more aggressive in calling out what are shameless falsehoods and distortions,” Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, said Sunday.

As they turned their attention to South Carolina, several Clinton advisors and fundraisers tried to dampen expectations there, saying that the Palmetto State’s large population of black Democratic regulars -- nearly half of the state’s party voters -- favors Obama.

One Clinton fundraiser said that bleak prospect came up at a recent dinner in Washington with Bill Clinton. The group discussed South Carolina, and the consensus was that it would be tough to pull off a win, the fundraiser said.

The New York senator will campaign in South Carolina for several days, officials said, but will then head to other states to lay groundwork for the Feb. 5 super-primary.

McCain savored his revival Sunday, taking aim at former New York Mayor Giuliani, who turned up on ABC’s “This Week” attacking McCain for voting against President Bush’s tax-cut program.

Before flying from Charleston, S.C., to Miami, the Arizona senator shrugged off Giuliani’s critique. His aides noted that he had voted against Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 because they were not paired with spending reductions.

“When someone hasn’t run a primary,” McCain said, “I can understand why they might attack the front-runner.”

Giuliani is plying a risky political strategy, not contesting the early GOP primary states and making Florida a firewall where he hopes to woo non- native snowbirds, GOP moderates and foreign-policy conservatives as a winning coalition.

Giuliani’s poll numbers have dropped precipitously in Florida and nationally, while McCain’s fortunes have soared. Both men may be hurt by the fact that Florida is closed to independent and Democratic crossovers.

Mehta reported from Atlanta, Nicholas from New York and Braun from Washington. Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Miami contributed to this report.

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