White House contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on Monday hurled barbs over foreign policy and fought over an alleged anti-Obama smear, heading into do-or-die contests for the former first lady.
A day before a crucial debate in Ohio, Hillary used a speech here to portray her Democratic rival as a risky choice on foreign affairs, implying Obama would need a beginners’ guide to the world’s hot-spots if elected President.
Before the speech, an Obama aide had already said sound judgment was the most important presidential attribute, highlighting Hillary’s Senate vote in 2002 to authorise the Iraq war.
The policy sparring came as a photograph emerged of Obama in African dress, at the start of the candidates’ final week of campaigning before primaries in Ohio and Texas on March 4 that are must-win nominating contests for Hillary.
Obama’s campaign accused the Hillary camp of “shameful, offensive fear-mongering” after the picture of Obama dressed in a Somali robe and turban appeared on gossip website Drudge Report.
The picture of Obama, who is bidding to be the first African-American president, was taken during an emotional visit by the candidate to his father’s homeland of Kenya in 2006.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said the photo represented “exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties and diminishes respect for America in the world”.
The website said the photo had been circulated by Hillary’s aides, a claim denied by her campaign, which said the Obama team should be “ashamed” for suggesting the image could prove divisive in the hard-fought election.
“Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely,” campaign manager Maggie Williams said.
“This is nothing more than an obvious and transparent attempt to distract from the serious issues confronting our country today and to attempt to create the very divisions they claim to decry,” she said.
The campaigns also crossed swords over trade, with Obama highlighting Hillary’s past support for a North American pact passed by her husband’s administration that many in Ohio blame for the loss of thousands of jobs.
With Obama basking in 11 nominating wins in a row, new polls in Ohio and Texas cast doubt on Hillary’s capacity to pull off the emphatic victories she needs to chase down Obama's lead in nominating delegates.
A CNN/Opinion Research survey found Obama leading in Texas for the first time, with 50 per cent of likely Democratic primary voters backing him, compared to 46 per cent for Hillary.
Given the poll’s 3.5 percentage point margin of error however, the race was still a statistical tie, in line with other state surveys.
In Ohio, a Quinnipiac University survey showed Hillary leading 51 per cent to 40 per cent among likely Democratic primary voters — down from her 55-34 per cent lead in a poll by the same organisation 11 days before.
“Senator Clinton’s lead remains substantial, but the trend line should be worrisome for her in a state that even her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has said she must win,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
A RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls has the New York senator up nearly nine points in Ohio, where once she led by over 20 points.
Hillary spokesman Howard Wolfson said: “We feel very, very good about our prospects in both Texas and Ohio.”
Battling to wrest back the initiative, Hillary said in her speech at George Washington University that unlike Obama, she did not “need a foreign policy instruction manual to guide me through a crisis”.
Her voice cracking from the strain of non-stop campaigning, the New York senator took fresh aim at Obama’s proposal for summit talks with sworn US foes such as Cuba, Iran and North Korea.
Obama aides shot back by accusing Hillary of joining a “neo-conservative drumbeat” for war with Iran.