LAS VEGAS (AP) — Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama blamed aides and campaign surrogates Tuesday night for fueling a campaign controversy over race, jointly pledging at a debate on Martin Luther King’s birthday to put the matter behind them.
Obama said “not only in hindsight, but going forward,” he regretted that his staff had prodded reporters to pursue the issue.
“Our supporters, our staff, get overzealous. They start saying things that I would not say,” said Obama, the most viable black candidate in history.
“We both have exuberant and sometimes uncontrollable supporters,” Clinton said in the opening moments of a two-hour debate televised on MSNBC. “We need to get this campaign where it should be,” said the former first lady, seeking to become the first woman to occupy the White House.
She said comments by black businessman Robert Johnson over the weekend were inappropriate, but sidestepped when asked whether she would bar him from playing a role in her campaign. Johnson made an evident reference to Obama’s youthful drug use – although he denied that was his intent.
Clinton, Obama and former Sen. John Edwards sat down for their debate as the former first lady won a meaningless Michigan presidential primary, a contest held in violation of party rules.
Edwards occupied the third chair at the debate, the only white man among three rivals.
The first hour of the debate was surprisingly cordial, particularly given the controversy of the past few days and the wide-open nature of their race for the presidential nomination.
At the same time, there were limits to the comraderie.
Clinton, asked whether Edwards and Obama were prepared to sit in the White House, said “that’s what the voters have to decide.”
And Edwards, given a chance to question his rivals, pointed out the huge sums that Clinton and Obama both have raised from drug and insurance companies. “Do you think these people expect something or are they just interested in good government?” he asked.
Obama quickly replied that he did not accept donations from federal lobbyists or political action committees, and Edwards just as quickly pointed out that applied to him as well.
The Michigan primary was an election in name only, where Clinton was the only major candidate entered. She faced competition principally from the “uncommitted” line on the ballot, an option that some supporters of Edwards and Obama advocated to embarrass the former first lady.
Returns from 55 percent of the state’s precincts showed her with 58 percent of the vote, and uncommitted gaining about 37 percent.
The debate was held four days before Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada, the next official event in a wide open race for the party’s presidential nomination.
Obama won the leadoff Iowa caucuses less than two weeks ago, but Clinton rebounded with an upset victory in the New Hampshire primary. Edwards has yet to win a contest.
Pre-caucus polls in Nevada make it a close race among the three, an event spiced by a lawsuit filed by several Clinton supporters hoping to challenge the ground rules.
Their objective was to prevent several caucuses along the Las Vegas Strip, where thousands of Culinary Workers Union employees – many of them Hispanic or black – hold jobs.
The rules were approved in May, when Clinton was the overwhelming national front-runner in the race. But the union voted to endorse Obama last week, and the lawsuit followed.
MSNBC televised the debate from the Cashman Center. Brian Williams and Tim Russert of NBC were the moderators.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich had hoped to have a seat at the table, but the Nevada Supreme Court ruled shortly before the debate began that MSNBC was legally entitled to prevent him from participating. It promptly did.
The Michigan primary was the first of two Democratic contests in which the DNC penalized state officials. Early voting began Monday for the Jan. 29 Florida primary, where Obama’s name is on the ballot but no campaigning is expected.
The disputes arose because national party officials wanted to allow only four states, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, to hold their contests before Feb. 5.