Sweet column: With race inserted into campaign, Obama, Clinton say enough is enough

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LAS VEGAS — With the explosive issue of race relations threatening to divide Democrats — at issue whether remarks by the Clintons and some surrogates were racially insensitive — presidential rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton separately on Monday said enough is enough.

Obama, campaigning in Nevada — the state’s caucus vote is Saturday — called a press conference in Reno where he vouched for the Clintons’ civil rights records and tried to put the brakes on the insertion of race into the contest. “Over the last couple of days you have seen a tone on the democratic side of the campaign that I think is unfortunate,” he said.

Click to enlarge image Barack Obama praised the Clintons work for civil rights in a weekend press conference in Reno, while Hillary Clinton joined the Rev. Clinton Miller at a rally to honor the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.


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But Obama also told NBC News he thought there was “some intentionality on the part of the Clinton campaign to knock us off message.”

Later, Clinton issued a statement where she said she and Obama are on the “same side” when it comes to civil rights. And Bill Clinton, stumping for his wife here, started his day near 4 a.m. to call three radio shows with an African-American audience doing damage control.

The exchanges capped an extraordinary few days in a historic campaign featuring the first viable African-American and female Democratic White House hopefuls that had been fairly free of raw conversations about race and gender. The controversy Obama and Clinton sought to quell comes as the Democrats debate tonight here — on Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — in a state that has substantial pockets of Hispanic, black, Asian and Jewish voters.

Clinton ended up on the defensive after telling Fox News last week, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” a remark taken by some to diminish King’s role.

Things escalated when Bill Clinton was also accused of racially inflammatory rhetoric — even though he was talking about Obama’s Iraq war funding votes when he used the term “fairy tale.”

Clinton’s campaign said the Obama team was trying to fuel a controversy, pointing to a memo by an Obama South Carolina press secretary created last week highlighting Clinton’s King quote and other comments made by Clinton surrogates on race. African-Americans are expected to make up more than half the Democratic vote in the Jan. 26 South Carolina primary.

With this backdrop, Obama told reporters, “I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. I think that they care about the African-American community and they care about all Americans. And they want to see people of equal race and equal justice in this country. And that is something I am convinced of and I want to make sure that the American people understand that is my assessment.”

He added, “What I want to avoid doing is dividing the party or in some way impugn the motives of the other candidates.”

Clinton, who appeared Monday at a rally honoring King, said in her statement, “We differ on a lot of things. And it is critical to have the right kind of discussion on where we stand. But when it comes to civil rights and our commitment to diversity, when it comes to our heroes — President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King — Senator Obama and I are on the same side.”

Calling in to Chicago’s WVON, Bill Clinton said, “It’s not surprising that these sort of things will happen . . . I think it’s very important not to overreact to.”

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