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Clinton, Obama step back on race debate

Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama stepped back from a controversy over race Monday night, agreeing that a prolonged clash over civil rights could harm their party’s overall drive to win the White House.

The two leading Democratic contenders shifted course as Republicans pointed toward today’s pivotal primary in Michigan, where Mitt Romney and John McCain both pledged to lead a revival for a state and an auto industry ravaged by recession.

Obama was the first to suggest a cooling of the rhetoric on race, calling reporters together to say he didn’t want the campaign “to degenerate into so much tit-for-tat, back-and-forth that we lose sight of why all of us are doing this.”

Referring to Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards, he said that while they may have disagreements, “we share the same goals. We’re all Democrats, we all believe in civil rights, we all believe in equal rights.”

Clinton’s campaign issued a statement in the same vein about an hour after Obama spoke, saying it was time to seek common ground. “And in that spirit, let’s come together, because I want more than anything else to ensure that our family stays together on the front lines of the struggle to expand rights for all Americans,” she said.

Strikingly, though, one of Clinton’s supporters, New York Rep. Charles Rangel, was sharply critical of Obama in an interview during the day. “How race got into this thing is because Obama said ‘race,’ ” Rangel, the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, said on television station NY1.

For much of the day, both Clinton and Obama seemed content to engage in increasingly accusatory campaign tactics.

Campaigning in Nevada, Obama said some of his opponents “don’t seem to have anything positive to say about their own record. All they’re trying to do is run me down.”

Obama, seeking to become the first black president, didn’t mention Clinton by name. But the reference was unmistakable after controversy over race and the Iraq war and as her campaign arranged a conference call to criticize his record on abortion.

In an interview on NBC, he said the former first lady’s campaign was seeking to stoke the race-related controversy. “I think there’s some intentionality on the part of the Clinton campaign to knock us off message.”

Rangel’s remarks were the second critical of Obama in as many days by a black surrogate campaigner. On Sunday, businessman Robert Johnson appeared to make a veiled reference to Obama’s self-disclosed drug use as a youth – although he quickly disputed that was his intent.

The former first lady did not mention the campaign’s increasingly combative tone as she campaigned in New York.

“Both Senator Obama and I know we are where we are today because of leaders like Dr. King,” Clinton said at a labor-sponsored birthday celebration in honor of the slain civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. “We have to bring our party together and our country together.”