Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have become embroiled in racially-tinged disputes as large numbers of black voters prepare to get their first say in the Democratic presidential campaign.
The candidates and their surrogates are heating up their rhetoric, and it could prove to be combustible beyond South Carolina's Jan. 26 primary.
"If we've learned anything over the course of the first two contests of 2008, it's that voters will decide what the campaign will be about," CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs said. "But gender and race are undeniably a major part of the Democratic primary contest. Nobody should pretend differently."
Clinton, on defense over comments that she and her husband made regarding Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy and Obama's fitness for the White House, tried to turn the tables on her top primary rival. She accused his campaign of looking to score political points by distorting their words.
Hillary Clinton had said King's dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while Bill Clinton said Illinois Sen. Obama was telling a "fairy tale" about his opposition to the Iraq war. Black leaders have criticized their comments, and Obama said Sunday her comment about King was "ill-advised."
"I think it offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King's role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act," Obama told reporters on a conference call. "She is free to explain that, but the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous."
Some African-Americans took Bill Clinton's comments as an attack on Obama's entire campaign and Hillary Clinton's comments as dismissive of the civil rights movement, reports CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield. It did not sit well with South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the most influential Democrat in the state.
As evidence the Obama campaign had pushed the story, Clinton advisers pointed to a memo written by an Obama staffer compiling examples of comments by Clinton and her surrogates that could be construed as racially insensitive. The memo later surfaced on some political Web sites.
"This is an unfortunate story line the Obama campaign has pushed very successfully," the former first lady said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I don't think this campaign is about gender, and I sure hope it's not about race."
Clinton taped the show before appearances in South Carolina, where at least half the primary voters are expected to be black. On Monday, she planned to attend a union event honoring King's legacy in New York City.
But no sooner had Clinton said she hoped the campaign would not be about race than it got even more heated. A prominent black Clinton supporter, Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson, criticized Obama and seemed to refer to his acknowledged teenage drug use while introducing Clinton at her next event.
"To me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues - when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood; I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book - when they have been involved," Johnson said.
Obama wrote about his youthful drug use - marijuana, alcohol and sometimes cocaine - in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father."
Johnson later said in a statement released by the Clinton campaign that his comments referred to Obama's work as a community organizer in Chicago "and nothing else. Any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect."
Another Clinton campaign official, Bill Shaheen, resigned last month after suggesting Democrats should be wary of nominating Obama because his past drug use could be used against him in the campaign.
Obama, campaigning in Las Vegas, declined to respond to Johnson.
"I'm not going to spend all my time running down the other candidates, which seems to be what Senator Clinton has been obsessed with for the last month," Obama said.
His strategist, however, didn't spare Johnson or Clinton.
"I don't see why this is so much different from what Billy Shaheen did in New Hampshire," David Axelrod said. "Senator Clinton apologized for that. It's bewildering why, since she was standing there, she had nothing to say about this."
Clinton was not yet on stage when Johnson made his statements and she did not mention them when she emerged.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Obama's wife rose to his defense over Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" comment. Michelle Obama said some blacks might be skeptical that white America will elect her husband, but advised them to look to his win in Iowa.
"Ain't no black people in Iowa," she said during a speech at the Trumpet Awards, an event celebrating black achievement. "Something big, something new is happening. Let's build the future we all know is possible. Let's show our kids that America is ready for Barack Obama right now."
John Edwards, a third candidate in the Democratic primary, waded into the dispute Sunday.