Obama, Clinton in race-tinged row

LAS VEGAS - Hillary Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have become embroiled in racially-tinged disputes as large numbers of black voters prepare to get their first say in the Democratic presidential campaign.

The candidates and their surrogates are heating up their rhetoric, and it could prove to be combustible beyond South Carolina's January 26 Democratic primary.

Clinton, on the defensive over comments that she and her husband made regarding slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King's legacy and Obama's fitness for the White House, tried to turn the tables on her top primary rival. She accused his campaign of looking to score political points by distorting their words.

Hillary Clinton had said King's dream of racial equality was realised only when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while Bill Clinton said Illinois Senator, Obama was telling a "fairy tale" about his opposition to the Iraq war. Black leaders have criticised their comments, and Obama said on Sunday her comment about King was "ill-advised".

"I think it offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King's role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act," he told reporters on a conference call. "She is free to explain that, but the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous." As evidence the Obama campaign had pushed the story, Clinton advisers pointed to a memo written by an Obama staffer compiling examples of comments by Clinton and her surrogates that could be construed as racially- insensitive. The memo later surfaced on some political websites.

"This is an unfortunate story line the Obama campaign has pushed very successfully," the New York senator said on Sunday on NBC television's "Meet the Press".

"I don't think this campaign is about gender, and I sure hope it's not about race." Clinton is bidding to be the first female US president, while Obama, if elected, would be the first black president.

Clinton taped the show before appearances in South Carolina, where at least half the voters in the Democratic primary are expected to be black. Yesterday, she planned to attend a union event in New York City to honour King's legacy.

A New Hampshire Clinton campaign official, Bill Shaheen, resigned last month after suggesting Democrats should be wary of nominating Obama because his past could be used against him by Republicans in the campaign. - Sapa-AP