GREENVILLE, S.C. - A day after clashing in their testiest debate yet, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stepped up their acrimonious dispute over character and truthfulness yesterday, signaling that their feuding might continue unabated until Democratic voters pick their presidential nominee.
As Obama campaigned in South Carolina and Clinton looked ahead to primary contests around the country, the two leading Democrats picked up largely where they left off in Monday night's debate in Myrtle Beach, accusing each other of obscuring the truth and of lowering the level of campaign discourse.
Clinton told reporters in Washington that Obama had come to the debate "looking for a fight." Obama's criticism of her, she said, was a reflection of his second-place finish to her in the New Hampshire primary and then in Saturday's Nevada caucuses.
"I think what we saw last night was that he's very frustrated," she said. "I believe that the events of the last 10 or so days, the outcome of New Hampshire and Nevada, have apparently convinced him to adopt a different strategy."
Obama, on a conference call with reporters, reiterated his allegation that Clinton, along with Bill Clinton, her husband and the former president, were deliberately distorting his words and record to fool voters.
"Senator Clinton announced while we were still in Iowa that this was going to be her strategy and called it the fun part of campaigning. And, you know, I don't think it's the fun part to fudge the truth," Obama said. "The necessary part of this campaign is to make sure that we're getting accurate information to voters about people's respective records."
Obama's campaign also established a hot line for South Carolina voters to report distortions in phone calls, direct mail pieces, or other media.
The bitter turn is occurring as South Carolina Democrats prepare to go to the polls Saturday, and two weeks before nearly two dozen states hold primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5. Obama, who yesterday received the endorsement of The State, South Carolina's most influential newspaper, holds a significant lead in polls locally, and a win would only heighten the stakes for the Feb. 5 showdown with Clinton. But a third defeat in a row to Clinton would be a serious blow to his prospects.
John Edwards, a former senator of North Carolina who is trailing in polls in his native South Carolina, tried to cast himself as above the Obama-Clinton fray at a campaign stop in Conway, S.C.
"You know, between all the allegations of Hillary serving on the
Edwards also launched a TV ad in South Carolina criticizing both Obama and Clinton for their campaign contributions.
But the focus yesterday remained largely on Obama and Clinton, whose tense exchanges some Democrats fear will hurt the party as it tries to recapture the White House after eight years of President Bush's Republican administration.
Clinton's campaign continued attacking Obama over various aspects of his record, from his numerous "present" votes in the Illinois Senate - including one on a bill to boost privacy protections for victims of sexual assault - to his past remarks about a single-payer healthcare system. Her campaign produced an Internet video showing Obama in 2003 calling himself a "proponent" of a single-payer system, though Obama counters that he has said he favors that approach only if the country were building a healthcare system from scratch.
Obama's campaign responded sharply, accusing Clinton's campaign of sinking to a "new low" in questioning Obama's "clear commitment to victims of sexual assault," and alleging that the parsing of Obama's words on single-payer healthcare was "dishonest."
"The Clinton campaign has shown itself willing to say anything, distort anything, and twist anything in order to win an election," Bill Burton, Obama spokesman, said in a statement to reporters.
With Clinton scheduled to be away from South Carolina until tomorrow, Bill Clinton remains her top campaigner in the state. Making a stop at a Columbia restaurant yesterday morning, he continued his critique of Obama on the Iraq war and over Obama's recent laudatory comments about Ronald Reagan.
"I thought he was running against me in Nevada for a while when he said Republicans had most of the new ideas, challenged the conventional wisdom of the '90s," the former president said. "I thought we challenged the conventional wisdom of the '90s."
Obama argues that Bill Clinton is taking his words about Reagan out of context, saying he never meant that Republicans had better ideas than Democrats.
Tom Daschle, a former Senate minority leader who is backing Obama, told reporters on a conference call yesterday that he was disappointed in how the former president was characterizing Obama's words and record.
"It's not presidential," Daschle said. "It's not in keeping with the image of a former president, and I'm frankly surprised that he is taking this approach."
With jitters coursing through Wall Street and the global financial markets, Obama and Clinton, as they battled, also tried to stay on top of the troubled economy.
In a speech at Furman University in Greenville, Obama reiterated calls for a $500 rebate for taxpayers and a $250 boost to seniors' Social Security checks. He said unemployment insurance should be available longer - and to more workers - than it is now.
Obama also took issue with Clinton for adding a tax rebate to her economic stimulus plan only after he proposed one, and alleged she voted for a bankruptcy bill in the Senate that she later said she was happy did not become law.
"This is exactly the kind of politics we cannot afford right now," Obama said. "Not when the stakes are this high, not when the economy is this fragile, not when so many banks are foreclosing on people's dreams. We can't afford a president whose positions change with the politics of the moment."
Clinton reserved her criticism on the economy for Bush, saying his administration have not acted fast enough to contain the crisis.
"We need action across the board, and it's imperative that the president and his economic team instill confidence in the competence of our government to take on what is clearly now a global crisis that could very well thrust us into a deep, long recession," she said.
Marcella Bombardieri of the Globe staff contributed to this report, and material from the Associated Press was also used. Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.