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Mississippi Democrats head to polls, with Obama riding high

world Updated: Mar 12, 2008 03:24 IST

AP
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Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton's battle for the Democratic presidential nomination shifted to Mississippi on Tuesday, where voting was under way in a race in which the former first lady has played down her chances. Mississippi's large black electorate makes it fertile ground for Obama, who has won most of the southern states by rolling up huge margins among black voters. Clinton, the New York senator, campaigned in Mississippi last week, but by Monday was in Pennsylvania, where the primary April 22 offers the biggest prize left in the nomination race: 158 delegates.

Obama, the first-term senator from Illinois who is seeking to become the first black US president, drew enthusiastic crowds in Mississippi. At stake are 33 delegates and another chance for Obama to rebound from last week's losses to Clinton in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island. Obama defeated Clinton in a minor contest in Wyoming on Saturday.

Obama, making a final stop Tuesday morning in Greenville, Mississippi, before flying to Pennsylvania, noted that the Mississippi delta area is struggling economically. "We just haven't seen as much opportunity come to this area as we'd like," he told a small gathering at Buck's restaurant. "And one of the challenges, I think, for the next president is making sure that we're serving all communities and not just some communities."

Clinton revived her campaign to become the first female president with last week's victories after 11 consecutive losses, but barely made a dent in Obama's all-important overall lead in the delegate count.

Obama has 1,579 delegates to Clinton's 1,473, according to the latest tally by The Associated Press. It will take 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic nomination at the party's convention in late August.

In Lowndes County, Mississippi, Circuit Clerk Haley Salazar said Tuesday that there appeared to be good early participation at the polls despite wet conditions.

Obama's visit on Monday "spurred a lot of interest here. We've had a lot of people coming in and asking about registering to vote ... and we have a a lot of calls," Salazar said. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has endorsed Obama, praised Mississippi as an example of how far the state has come from the racial and gender politics of the past, but worried about the ability of the two candidates' campaigns to pull together in fall. "My concern is they keep one eye on winning and one eye on reconciliation," the civil rights leader told The Associated Press in an interview. "By the ending they must have one big tent to avoid a collision."

At a Monday evening rally in Jackson with 9,000 people, Obama painted Clinton as part of the Washington establishment whose time has come and gone.

The nation does not need "the same old folks doing the same old things, talking the same old stuff," he said, essentially lumping Clinton with President George W. Bush and Republican candidate Sen. John McCain.

He accused Clinton's campaign of leaking a photograph of him wearing traditional African garments, including a turban, during a visit to Africa. That was "straight out of the Republican playbook," Obama said. "That's not real change." Clinton has said she is not aware of anyone on her staff leaking the photo.

For her part, Clinton had moved on to Pennsylvania, where she held a rally in Scranton and carefully sidestepped questions about the sex scandal threatening the political career of Eliot Spitzer, her home state governor and political ally.

"I don't have any comment on that," she said when asked about reports that Spitzer allegedly paid for sex with a high-priced call girl at a Washington hotel. "Obviously, I am sending my best wishes and thoughts to the governor and to his family," Clinton said. Clinton's campaign views Pennsylvania as friendly terrain, similar to neighboring Ohio which she won convincingly.

Both are industrial states with large numbers of white working-class voters and Democratic governors who are strong supporters of Clinton. On the Republican side, McCain, a veteran Arizona senator and former Vietnam prisoner of war who wrapped up his party's nomination last week, criticized the two Democrats on Tuesday for proposing to force the renegotiation the North American Free Trade Agreement. "We've got to stop this protectionist, NAFTA-bashing," McCain told a town hall meeting at Savvis Inc., an information technology company.

McCain said his potential Democratic opponents were wrong to threaten pulling out of NAFTA to force Canada and Mexico to negotiate more protections for workers and the environment in the agreement.

If that threat is made, McCain asked, "What are the other countries in the world going to think about the agreements we've negotiated with them?"

He said the government should instead focus on providing educational and training programs to those who have lost their jobs. In a debate in Cleveland before the March 4 primary in Ohio, where NAFTA is blamed for the loss of industrial jobs, both Democratic presidential contenders endorsed threatening to pull out of NAFTA unless labor and environmental standards could be renegotiated.