Former President Bill Clinton said yesterday it was a "mistake" for him to go after his wife's rival, while Sen. Barack Obama amped up his insistence that he is the more likely Democrat to beat Republican Sen. John McCain in November.
Mr. Obama, bolstered by polls showing him better positioned to beat Mr. McCain, said he can reach out to independents in a way Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton cannot. He also repeated that he believes the Republican attack machine would take aim at the Clintons, should she be the nominee.
Mr. Clinton, who has a packed campaign schedule in rural parts of Virginia this weekend, said he had learned a lesson about how he should conduct himself in his efforts to support Mrs. Clinton.
"I think the mistake that I made is to think that I was a spouse, like any other spouse, who could defend his candidate," he said in an interview with NBC News at a campaign stop in Portland, Maine. "I think I can promote Hillary but not defend her, because I was president. I have to let her defend herself or have someone else defend her."
Voter exit polls showed Mr. Clinton's focus on Mr. Obama in campaign speeches hurt his wife's candidacy in South Carolina. For several weeks on the trail, the former president went after Mr. Obama's voting record on Iraq, and said the press has given his wife's opponent a pass, prompting top Democrats to warn him he could damage the party and another to say he needs to "chill."
Yesterday Mr. Clinton told NBC that the press has twisted what he said about Mr. Obama.
"A lot of the things that were said were factually inaccurate," Mr. Clinton said. "I did not ever criticize Senator Obama personally in South Carolina. ... But I think whenever I defend her, I, A, risk being misquoted and, B, risk being the story. I don't want to be the story."
As both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton campaigned in Washington state before today's caucuses, the Illinois senator pushed back against the former first lady's claims she is more "vetted." He said she would not be insulated against further attacks from Republicans, especially since, "We know they make a cottage industry out of attacking her."
He said as the two candidates battle to win over "superdelegates" — prominent Democrats who ultimately will choose the nominee at the party convention — he will remind them "who will be in the strongest position to defeat John McCain in November, who will be in the strongest position to make sure that we are broadening the base, bringing people who historically have not gotten involved in our politics to vote."
He argued he has better judgment than Mr. McCain since he opposed the Iraq war from its inception.
"On the most important foreign policy decision in perhaps a generation I strongly believe that John McCain got it wrong," he said. "He has been for it from the start, and he is still for it and he wants to be for it a 100 years from now."
The Obama campaign also cheered new poll numbers showing he would beat Mr. McCain in a general election matchup.
"By winning a majority of delegates and a majority of the states, Barack Obama won an important Super Tuesday victory over Senator Clinton in the closest thing we have to a national primary," said campaign manager David Plouffe. "That's why he's on track to win the Democratic nomination, and that's why he's the best candidate to defeat John McCain in November."
He said Mr. Obama's wins came from every region "from Colorado and Utah in the west to Georgia and Alabama in the south" and in Connecticut in the Northeast.
Mr. McCain's win poses problems for the "electability" argument that each Democrat is now making in their primary. In the case of Mr. Obama, the Arizona senator is as strong among independent voters as his Illinois counterpart. On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton can no longer run on the premise that she is better suited to handle the "Republican attack machine" in November.
Mrs. Clinton has said from the beginning that her 15 years fighting that machine has made her stronger and more prepared to win the general election.
But Mr. McCain also has been a recipient of dirty tricks and attack ads by those very same groups and railed against the so-called "swiftboating" that befell Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, during his 2004 run for the presidency.
Mrs. Clinton signaled her recognition of the political shift during a campaign stop Thursday, calling Mr. McCain "a friend of mine" more than once and an "esteemed colleague" that she very much respects. She also mentioned that the two have worked together and went as a team to Iraq to talk to troops.
The Clinton campaign yesterday challenged Mr. Obama's green economy proposal as a new policy position and one that conflicts with his voting record.
Mr. Obama attacked the Bush administration's reasoning for ignoring global warming, saying that Vice President Dick Cheney "developed America's energy policy with a secret task force that opened the door to oil lobbyists and then shut it to every other point of view."
The Clinton campaign reminded reporters that Mr. Obama voted for the very energy bill he now derides.
"It would have been nice if Senator Obama discovered his newfound concerns about the vice president's role in making energy policy prior to voting for the Bush-Cheney energy bill in 2005," said Clinton spokesman Phill Singer.
There are three other Democratic contests today, in Nebraska, Louisiana and the Virgin Islands. Maine Democrats vote tomorrow and the Potomac region holds elections Tuesday.
Today"s Democratic presidential nominating contests are:
• WASHINGTON CAUCUSES
The stakes: 78 Democratic delegates.
Lay of the land: Sen. Barack Obama is thought to have an advantage in the caucuses, which are dominated by party activists. However, the state has a strong history of electing women.
Polls done shortly before John Edwards dropped out indicated a tight race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama.
• LOUISIANA PRIMARIES
The stakes: 56 Democratic delegates.
Lay of the land: A heavy turnout by black voters would benefit Mr. Obama. The state is close to one-third black and has only a small population of Hispanics, a group that has favored Mrs. Clinton.
• NEBRASKA DEMOCRATIC CAUCUSES
The stakes: 24 Democratic delegates.
Lay of the land: The Clinton campaign claimed a strong grass-roots organization. Mr. Obama has been endorsed by state party leaders and lawmakers as well as by Sen. Ben Nelson, the only Democratic member of the state's congressional delegation.
Source: Associated Press