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Wednesday, January 23, 2008 - Page updated at 08:11 PM

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ON DEADLINE: Clinton Makes Race an Issue

Associated Press Writer

Bill Clinton says race shouldn't be an issue in the Democratic presidential campaign. Well, then perhaps he should stop talking about it.

The caustic politics of race and gender took center stage in the Democratic race Wednesday as a combative Clinton campaigned on behalf of his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and lashed out at the rival Barack Obama campaign and the media for focusing on race.

But it was Clinton himself who dished on the topic when he told an audience in Charleston that he was proud of the Democratic Party for having a woman and a black candidate. In response to a question from a crowd member who asked about "race-baiting" by the media, Clinton said he understands why Obama is drawing support among blacks, who are expected to comprise at least half the primary turnout.

"As far as I can tell, neither Senator Obama nor Hillary have lost votes because of their race or gender. They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender _ that's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here," the former president said. "But that's understandable because people are proud when someone who they identify with emerges for the first time."

One of the best political strategists of his generation, Clinton may be hoping to lower expectations for Saturday's primary. He may have his sights on Feb. 5, when voters in 22 states take part in a national primary. It would likely work to Hillary Clinton's advantage to have the electorate polarized by race, given that most Feb. 5 voters will be white and Hispanic; she won the Hispanic vote overwhelmingly in last week's Nevada caucus.

Strategists working for the New York senator deny any intentional effort by Bill Clinton, his wife or even surrogates like Bob Johnson, who referred to Obama's admitted drug use, to stir the racial debate. But they say they believe the fallout has had the effect of branding Obama as "the black candidate," something he has worked to avoid.

One Clinton supporter openly played the race card.

After fielding several questions from a crowd of about 200 in Kingstree, Bill Clinton called on a black man standing off to the side of the small stage. The man identified himself as a pastor and told Clinton that "black America is voting for Obama because he's black."

The man also said Democrats are in a "dangerous position" because if Obama wins the nomination, voters will put a Republican in the White House.

"They're not ready to for a black president," the man said.

Several black audience members nodded their heads. Several said in unison, "That's right!"

Clinton responded, "First of all, as an American, I have to tell you I hope you're not right."

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He then said that despite the "mean things" said about him "in the Obama camp this week," he would support the Illinois senator in November should his wife lose the nomination fight.

"If he wins the nomination, I will do what I can to help him win the election," Clinton said.

"The reason I think Hillary is more electable is not race, it's this: If there is a security crisis somewhere between now and the election, the fact that Hillary" has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and has visited more than 80 nations "will make it much harder for them to spook people by saying she can't handle a national security crisis," Clinton said.

"If they (conduct) one of their standard negative campaigns," he added, "I think it'll be easier for her to withstand it because she has so much scar tissue."

Still, he said twice in his remarks that all three Democratic candidates _ Clinton, Obama and former Sen. John Edwards _ could beat any Republican nominee in the current political climate.

The pastor who raised the specter of racism later refused to identify himself to an Associated Press reporter. He was escorted by a security guard who shooed away strangers.

In Charleston, Clinton scolded reporters for asking about an Obama supporter's accusation that the Clinton campaign has used race as a wedge issue like past GOP campaigns.

"This is almost like once you accuse someone of racism and bigotry the facts become irrelevant," a red-faced Clinton said. "Not one single solitary citizen asked about any of this, and they never do."

He said the Obama campaign is encouraging reporters to write about race.

"Shame on you!" he told a reporter.

Shame on anybody who plays the race card.

___

Associated Press writer Mike Baker contributed to this column.

___

EDITOR'S NOTE _ Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. This is an occasional column.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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