WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said yesterday that race is not the reason he is struggling to attract working-class votes. He also insisted that he can win over uncommitted superdelegates by showing he is "best able to not just defeat John McCain, but also lead the country."
Speaking in a televised interview, Obama rejected a challenge from Hillary Clinton to debate before the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.
"I'm not ducking. We've had 21" debates, he said.
Trailing in delegates and the popular vote, Clinton has been stepping up the pressure on Obama for more debates before the upcoming primaries, which are crucial to her candidacy.
She also has been reaching out to uncommitted Democratic superdelegates in hopes of capitalizing on her Pennsylvania primary victory.
Clinton's Pennsylvania victory was buoyed by support from working-class and white voters, but Obama dismissed the notion yesterday that race will be a factor in the presidential election.
"Is race still a factor in our society? Yes. I don't think anybody would deny that," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
"Is that going to be the determining factor in a general election? No, because I'm absolutely confident that the American people - what they're looking for is somebody who can solve their problems."
Addressing whether superdelegates should back the candidate with the most pledged delegates and popular vote, Obama said he believed voters will be frustrated if Democratic superdelegates choose to back the trailing candidate. He expressed confidence that he can convince superdelegates that he is more electable.
"I think we should find that person who is going to be best able to not just defeat John McCain, but also lead the country. I happen to think I'm that person," Obama said. "I will make that argument forcefully to the superdelegates prior to the convention."
Superdelegates are party members who are automatically selected to attend the convention and are not bound by the popular vote in their states' primaries and caucuses.
Speaking to reporters in Indiana, Obama declined to set expectations on a margin of victory in that state.
"I think winning is winning - 50 plus 1," Obama said. "Indiana is a very important state, so is North Carolina, we're not taking that for granted. There's no doubt it's close. We feel very strongly that our message of bringing change to Washington is going to resonate in Indiana."
Polls put Obama in the lead in North Carolina, but the race in Indiana is considered too close to call.
Campaigning in Wilmington, N.C., yesterday, Clinton said the assassination attempt President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan shows that the United States has failed to give proper attention to that country.
Clinton, who has met Karzai, said, "He is a brave man trying under very difficult circumstances to hold that country together, and we have not given him the resources he needs." Afghanistan needs to get "as much, if not more attention" than Iraq, she said.
While the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina are considered crucial to her candidacy, Clinton over the weekend deflected questions about how she would handle a loss.
"I don't make predictions or speculate on things that haven't happened yet," she said.
Although Obama is leading in the popular vote, states won, and pledged delegates, Clinton's victories in Pennsylvania and Ohio have raised questions about whether he can make more inroads among white voters.
Clinton dominated the vote among white union households and white Catholics in Pennsylvania. She won about 70 percent of voters in those groups. In polls, about one in seven Pennsylvania voters said race was a factor in their decision.
The Democratic Party this week will step up its attack on Senator John McCain, using a new party ad to cast the presumed Republican presidential nominee as a commander in chief who would keep troops in Iraq for 100 years. The ad is part of a half-million-dollar, three-week national cable television campaign aimed at linking the Arizona senator to the policies of President Bush.
The ad set to begin airing today accuses McCain of wanting to remain in Iraq for "maybe 100" years, a link to a remark McCain made in January while campaigning in New Hampshire. The ad concludes, "If all he offers is more of the same is John McCain the right choice for America's future?"
Since then, McCain has repeatedly said he has no intention of extending the war into the next century, but would keep a US military presence in Iraq.
The Republican National Committee charged that the DNC ad distorted McCain's comments, and it asserted again that the ad was illegal because it was made in coordination with the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Dean has denied any coordination with the campaigns.
The Democratic candidates have also acknowledged they would keep noncombat troops in Iraq to ensure its stability. But they have said they would begin withdrawing combat troops promptly upon becoming president.