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As Candidates Agree, Aides Keep Sparring

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; Page A04

As a controversy over racially charged politics threatened to spin out of control and supporters of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) expressed concern that the ongoing debate would revive old images of a party mired in identity politics and haunt the eventual Democratic nominee in the general election, the candidates inched toward a truce yesterday.

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Speaking at a Service Employees International Union event in Manhattan marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Clinton heaped praise on the civil rights leader. In a statement issued later, she said: "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." Bill Clinton is to appear on Al Sharpton's radio show today to take calls from listeners on civil rights issues.

Campaigning in Reno, Nev., Obama told reporters, "I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. I think that they care about the African American community, they care about all Americans, and they want to see equal rights and equal justice in this country."

But earlier in the day, surrogates for each seemed determined to continue waging the war of words.

"Someone said, 'You can't unring a bell' -- well, the biggest bell in American politics just got rung," said James Carville, a Clinton confidant.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (Mo.), an Obama campaign co-chairman, said yesterday that Clinton was "trying to score cheap political points on the back of Martin Luther King's legacy" when she said that "King's dream became a reality when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964" -- the statement that helped launch the debate over the role of race in the campaign.

Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), a prominent Clinton supporter, raised criticism of Obama to a new level. In an extensive interview, Lewis, a King lieutenant and icon of the civil rights movement, called Obama "a friend" but added: "He is no Martin Luther King Jr. I knew Martin Luther King. I knew Bobby Kennedy. I knew President Kennedy. You need more than speech-making. You need someone who is prepared to provide bold leadership."

Among loyal supporters on both sides, the duel triggered deep concerns about where it will lead. Obama last night joined some of his allies in suggesting that the Clinton campaign is intentionally fueling a discussion of race "to knock us off message," he told NBC News. Her advisers insist that she stumbled into it through a series of tactical responses to Obama, who delivered a speech before the New Hampshire primary in which he invoked both Kennedy and King.

"Instead of the Democratic Party celebrating and wallowing in euphoria over the fact that our party will in all probability nominate a woman or an African American, we have engaged in 'Swift boat' actions that we all say we deplore," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (Mo.), a Clinton supporter, referring to attacks that helped derail Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 White House bid. "The Clintons have been Swift-boated in this thing."

Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), an Obama supporter, said the flap over race is hurting both candidates, potentially narrowing Obama's appeal with white voters and harming Clinton as the nomination fight begins to be waged in the Southeast, where the Democratic electorate is heavily African American. The first test in the region for Democrats will come in South Carolina on Jan. 26.

"We're not going to win on identity politics," Davis said. "Barack Obama is not going to win on identity politics. Hillary Clinton is not going to win on identity politics. The Republican Party is sitting there salivating at the prospects of a battle between white females and blacks."

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.), a Clinton supporter, made a similar appeal for peace and sought a return to a discussion of issues that could draw independent and some Republican support to the eventual nominee: the economy, health care and energy. But both sides acknowledged the momentum of the race debate was becoming difficult to stop.

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