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Obama Takes Heat from the Other Clinton

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's something else Hillary Clinton is counting on. Bill Clinton is campaigning for his wife, denouncing Barack Obama and facing accusations of making distortions. Some of Obama's allies see a racial element to all this.

And the leading South Carolina Democrat says Mr. Clinton needs to, quote, "chill," which he's not - as NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: During the Democrats' debate earlier this week in South Carolina, Barack Obama complained that at times he didn't know who he was running against - Hillary Clinton or her husband or both.

For weeks the Clintons have waged a frontal assault on Obama, from comments the Illinois senator made about Ronald Reagan to accusations of voter suppression by the Obama campaign in Nevada.

Weeks back, when the former president referred to Obama's Iraq war opposition as a fairy tale, some considered it as going too far. Obama supporters insist that it's time for Bill Clinton to dial it down.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): That's beneath the dignity of a former president.

CORNISH: That's Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy yesterday in Washington. Leahy has endorsed Obama.

Sen. LEAHY: There's a great deal of good things you could say about Senator Clinton, but - so to say the good things about her. Don't take cheap shots at Senator Obama.

CORNISH: Bill Clinton was anything but contrite. He accused the Obama campaign and the media of focusing on race and on the bickering between the two camps. At a campaign stop at a Charleston restaurant yesterday, the former president heard one voter refer to race bating in describing the recent back and forth. But Clinton says this isn't about race.

President BILL CLINTON: When you try to state a fact, it is wrong to accuse somebody who has a difference with Senator Obama of being a racist or somebody that has a difference with Hillary being a sexist. This is what we've been - some of us living for for our whole lives, waiting until we could all freely run and say whatever the heck was on our mind.

CORNISH: Clinton says some of the more, quote, "edgy stuff" was just part of honest debate. But voters who came out to see the 42nd president weren't so sure.

Nancy Olsen is a Clinton supporter on Goose Creek, South Carolina.

Ms. NANCY OLSEN: I guess I'm a little discouraged about that. I can't say he's done her any big favors lately. I'm very supportive of his being supportive of her and I'm glad he's out there, but I think his tone has been a little bit too strong.

CORNISH: Audrey Robinson and Marilyn Payett(ph) are both Clinton fans but undecided voters from Charleston.

Ms. AUDREY ROBINSON: It seems as though being that he's been in that office, he knows exactly, you know, what things are going on and have the inside scoop, so it seems as though he would take a different route on how he...

Ms. MARILYN PAYETT: He should not have gone that way. I think it's improbable for him being a former president to go that route. That's too much bickering. You know, he should stay political and go straight ahead and what the issues are.

CORNISH: But Joqata Jones(ph) says Clinton is doing no worse for his wife than any other candidates' spouse on the campaign trail.

Ms. JOQATA JONES: Nobody's going to push Michelle Obama around, you know? When they criticize Senator Edwards about some haircut or something, his wife nearly lost it. You know, she's tackled everybody who thought they had a criticism. So it's just that because he's so prominent that of course whatever he said ended up being engrained in people's minds.

CORNISH: Which may be why this week the Obama campaign announced it was starting a so-called truth squad to follow Bill Clinton around the state. The good news for both candidates is that none of the voters here say the bickering will affect their vote. Of course there are still two more days to go before Saturday's primary.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

INSKEEP: I've been reading this rundown of the politics and issues at stake in Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, and you can read it as well, if you like. Just go to npr.org/elections. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.