- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

CLEVELAND — The Democratic presidential contenders yesterday prepared for a bruising debate here tonight by accusing each other of dirty politics after a photograph surfaced of Sen. Barack Obama wearing a turban and Muslim-style robes.

The Obama campaign said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York engaged in “shameful, offensive fear-mongering” by circulating the photograph, which showed the senator from Illinois wearing traditional Somali dress on a 2006 trip to Kenya, his father’s homeland.

Clinton campaign officials disavowed the photograph.

They accused Mr. Obama of using the photo flap to “distract and divide” voters from Mrs. Clinton’s attack on his wavering foreign-policy stances and his negative campaign in the blue-collar battleground state of Ohio.

“We’ve seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security,” Mrs. Clinton said in the speech in Washington. “We can’t let that happen again.”

She said her rival’s vacillation between pledges to meet with rogue dictators and threats to unilaterally bomb Pakistan displayed the same instincts that President Bush had in the rush to war in Iraq.

Obama’s foreign-policy team questioned whether the quality of Mrs. Clinton’s judgment matched her claim of 35 years of experience. They faulted her 2002 vote for the Iraq war, her vote to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group and her unwillingness to meet with foreign adversaries.

“What’s important on Day One is to get it right,” Obama adviser Susan Rice said.

The increasingly bitter tone of the campaign reflects the narrowing of races in Texas and Ohio, where the March 4 primaries could be Mrs. Clinton’s last chance to break the momentum of the Obama campaign.

A new CNN poll showed Mr. Obama overtaking Mrs. Clinton in Texas with a 50 percent to 46 percent lead.

A Quinnipiac University poll also showed Mrs. Clinton’s lead deteriorating in Ohio. Her 14-point lead earlier this month dropped to an 11-point lead, 51 percent to 40 percent

“I think Senator Obama’s entire campaign against Senator Clinton is negative,” Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said. “He has called her the status quo, questioned her veracity, questioned her credibility, said she will say and do anything to get elected.”

He railed against Mr. Obama’s direct-mail campaign in Ohio that said that Mrs. Clinton’s health care plan overlooks the poor and that she supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which unions say cost the state about 50,000 jobs.

Mrs. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, presided over the ratification of NAFTA.

Mrs. Clinton began blasting Mr. Obama’s Ohio tactics over the weekend and yesterday began a widespread direct-mail and robocall campaign to “set the record straight.”

Clinton economic adviser Larry Benn pointed out that Mr. Obama had praised the World Trade Organization and NAFTA during his 2004 senate campaign.

“What we have is Senator Obama saying one thing while he’s running for senate [in Illinois] and another running for president in Ohio,” Mr. Benn said.

Obama supporters defended their candidate.

“Barack Obama’s record on NAFTA and trade deals is crystal clear,” said Bruce Raynor of UNITE Here, a major union backing Mr. Obama. He said Mr. Clinton “shoved it down the throat of Democrats in Congress.”

Meanwhile, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said the photograph — which first appeared on the Drudge Report Web site with an unsourced story linking it to the Clinton campaign — continued a “disturbing pattern” of dirty tricks by Mrs. Clinton’s machine.

He said the photo was reminiscent of previous scandals that tainted the Clinton campaign image, including e-mails to voters falsely saying Mr. Obama is Muslim and veiled attacks on Mr. Obama’s admission that he used drugs as a young man.

“It’s exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties and diminishes respect for America in the world,” Mr. Plouffe said.

Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams quickly responded that Mrs. Clinton has worn such traditional dress while visiting other countries and suggested that the Obama campaign was trying to paint the photo as “divisive.”

“They should be ashamed,” she said. “We will not be distracted.”

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