Hillary Rodham Clinton, stressing her foreign policy credentials ahead of must-win state races where polls show her advantage slipping, characterized Democratic presidential rival Barack Obama as rash and inconsistent and suggested he would need an instruction manual to handle a global crisis.
Republican John McCain campaigned in Ohio, and told reporters he must convince a war-weary country that U.S. policy in Iraq is succeeding to win the White House. He then backed off that remark, saying merely that Iraq would be a part of voters' judgment of his ability to handle national security.
The five-year-old Iraq conflict already is emerging as a fault line in the general election, with the Arizona senator calling for the U.S. military continuing its mission while his Democratic opponents urge quick withdrawal.
Hoping to slow Obama's surging candidacy before the primaries in Texas and Ohio next week, Clinton painted a picture of a dangerous world in need of seasoned and wise U.S. leadership. She portrayed Obama as a national security novice and said with her, Americans can be assured she would not need a "foreign policy instruction manual" to keep the country safe.
In thinly veiled criticism, she compared her Democratic rival's foreign experience to that of President George W. Bush upon taking office eight years ago.
Voters have already seen the "tragic result" of electing a commander in chief with little experience in national security and global affairs, she said in a speech at The George Washington University. "We can't let that happen again. America has already taken that chance one time too many."
She slammed Obama as inconsistent for saying during a televised debate last summer that he would be willing, as president, to meet without preconditions with the leaders of Cuba, Iran and other nations hostile to the United States, and also for saying he would be willing to send U.S. troops into Pakistan if there were "actionable intelligence" that the country is harboring terrorists.
"He wavers from seeming to believe that mediation and meetings without preconditions can solve some of the world's most intractable problems to advocating rash, unilateral military action without the cooperation of our allies in the most sensitive part of the world," Clinton said.
Anticipating the former first lady's criticism, Obama's foreign policy advisers held a conference call with reporters before she delivered her speech. Top Obama adviser Susan Rice said the New York senator had shown poor judgment on a range of issues, including voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq and supporting legislation declaring the Iranian National Guard as a terrorist organization.
"Those are critical foreign policy judgments. They are judgments that any candidate should be held accountable for. And obviously we look forward to Senator Clinton's explanation of how and why she got those critical judgments wrong," Rice said.
Shifting to economic issues that have been a campaign theme heading into struggling industrial states like Ohio, Clinton also said the Bush administration has "failed" in handling the rise of China.
"Today, China is most obviously the world's largest and one of its fastest growing economies. It's become a global superpower that needs to be convinced to play by the rules in the global marketplace," she said. "One third of our trade deficit is with China and over the course of the last seven years Bush policies have allowed the Chinese government to become our banker."
China is actually the world's fourth-largest economy, closing in on Germany's No. 3 spot, according to statistics released last month.
Obama has dominated the Democratic Party's race for the White House nomination since the Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday" series of contests, sweeping 11 races and capturing the lead in the all-important delegate count. Clinton, facing must-win March 4 Democratic presidential nomination battles in Ohio and Texas, is faltering, but has insisted her campaign is on track and moving forward.
The two states offer a total 334 delegates, and former President Bill Clinton has said his wife probably needs to win both of them if she is to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama currently has 1,362 delegates to Clinton's 1,266.5. A total of 2,025 are needed to secure the Democratic nomination at the party's convention in late August in Denver.
Recent polls show the race in Texas to be a statistical dead heat. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed that Clinton's 11-percentage-point lead in Ohio has fallen since a Feb. 14 survey by the same organization showed her ahead by 21 points. She has 51 percent compared with Obama's 40 percent, according to the poll. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
A second Ohio Poll sponsored by the University of Cincinnati found Clinton ahead with 47 percent and Obama with 39 percent. That poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
On Monday, the two campaigns traded accusations of divisive politics over after a photograph circulated in the Internet of Obama dressed in traditional local garments during a visit to Kenya in 2006.
The gossip and news Web site The Drudge Report posted the photograph Monday and said it was being circulated by "Clinton staffers" and quoted an e-mail from an unidentified campaign aide. Drudge did not include proof of the e-mail in the report.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe immediately accused Clinton's campaign of "the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we've seen from either party in this election."
Clinton's campaign said it was unaware of the photo.
"I just want to make it very clear that we were not aware of it, the campaign didn't sanction it and don't know anything about it," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said in a teleconference with reporters.
The Republican race is considered settled in favor of McCain, the veteran Arizona senator and a former Vietnam prisoner of war
He has a total of 998 of the 1,191 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at the Republican convention in September in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, trails with 254 delegates.