Clinton Campaign Pushing Obama as Favorite

DILLON, South Carolina -- Former President Bill Clinton suggested that his wife might lose Saturday's Democratic presidential primary because many black voters will side with Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Republicans looked to Florida, where a closely fought race could help anoint the front-runner for the party's presidential nomination.

The former president's unusually direct comment Wednesday on the possible role of race in the election was in keeping with the Clintons' bid to portray Obama, who is aiming to become the first black U.S. president, as the clear favorite, thereby lessening the potential fallout if Hillary Rodham Clinton does not win in South Carolina.

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination has essentially been dominated by New Hampshire primary winner Clinton and Obama, who secured the coveted win in the lead-off Iowa caucuses. Stuck in third place was former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, a former vice presidential candidate whose White House bid has been overshadowed by the personality-driven campaigns of his rivals.

Voting for president along racial and gender lines "is understandable, because people are proud when someone who they identify with emerges for the first time," Bill Clinton told a Charleston audience Wednesday while campaigning for his wife, which he has done all week.

His comments and later outburst came on a day when Obama continued to challenge Hillary Clinton's candor and trustworthiness. He said his chief rival has indulged in double-talk on bankruptcy laws, trade and other issues.

The atmosphere grew more charged after Clinton's campaign aired a radio ad in South Carolina suggesting that Obama approved of Republican ideas. Obama responded with his own radio spot that says, "Hillary Clinton will say anything to get elected."

Politicians "don't always say what they mean, or mean what they say," Obama, a senator from Illinois, told about 900 people Wednesday at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. "That is what this debate in this party is all about."

Bill Clinton, campaigning on the coast while Obama was inland, said Obama and the media had stirred up tensions over race in response to some Democrats' criticisms of the couple's strategies.

"I never heard a word of public complaint when Mr. Obama said Hillary was not truthful" and had "no character, was poll-driven. He had more pollsters than she did," the ex-president said in a heated exchange with a CNN reporter. "When he put out a hit job on me at the same time he called her the senator from Punjab, I never said a word."

It was not clear what he meant by "hit job."

Last year, Obama's campaign circulated a memo describing Hillary Clinton as "D-Punjab," a reference to her Indian-American donors. Obama has said that was a mistake.

Bill Clinton said black civil rights leaders Andrew Young and John Lewis have defended his wife. "They both said that Hillary was right and the people who attacked her were wrong and that she did not play the race card, but they did," he said.

Clinton said the news media were much tougher on his wife than on Obama. At the end of the exchange, he told the CNN reporter, "Shame on you."

Clinton also told about 100 people in Charleston that he was proud of the Democratic Party for having a woman and a black candidate and that he understood why Obama is drawing support among blacks, who may comprise up to half of Saturday's turnout.

"As far as I can tell, neither Senator Obama nor Hillary have lost votes because of their race or gender," he said. "They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender -- that's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here."

Meanwhile, Edwards, who has staked his fading hopes on the Jan. 26 contest in South Carolina, where he was born and whose primary he won in 2004, stepped into the increasingly bitter exchange between Clinton and Obama on Wednesday.

He criticized Clinton for leaving South Carolina after Monday's debate while she focused on the Feb. 5 mega-primary where wins could easily open the door for the party's presidential nomination. "What are the chances she's coming back when she's president of the United States?" Edwards said at a rally.

On the Republican side, the Jan. 29 Florida primary could help sort out a wide-open race. The race is now essentially split among three men: John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who has yet to win any of six state contests.