Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested Barack Obama was not prepared to handle a global crisis as she looked ahead to a Tuesday night debate that offered one of her last chances to blunt her rival's momentum before next week's must-win primaries.
The two Democratic presidential contenders face off in a debate at Cleveland State University just a week before the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas that Clinton must win to keep alive her faltering bid to become the first U.S. female president.
Republican John McCain also campaigned in Ohio on Monday, and told reporters he must convince a war-weary country that U.S. policy in Iraq is succeeding to win the White House, or else "then I lose. I lose."
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 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.
A coalition of anti-war groups that was influential in last year's political debate on Iraq says it plans to spend more than US$20 million (euro13.5 million) this year to convince voters that McCain and the Republican Party's support for the war is bad for the economy.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, activist leaders said they believe voters will blame Republicans this fall for supporting the war at a time of rising health care and college costs and a mortgage foreclosure crisis.
"Leaders who do not recognize this connection will be at a disadvantage come Election Day," said Jeff Blum, director of USAction, which plans to spend US$10 million (euro6.75 million) organizing a grass-roots effort against Republican candidates. Blum said the group intends to dispatch hundreds of thousands of volunteers to go door to door to convince voters that the Republicans' war effort is hurting the economy.
Hoping to slow Obama's surging candidacy _ which has been boosted by 11 straight wins in nominating contests since Feb. 5 _ 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 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 in 2001.
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.
Obama, meanwhile, put in something of a good word for Clinton at an Ohio campaign stop, saying voters should support Democrats, because "myself or Senator Clinton, we're all concerned about creating a better social safety net."
He then pivoted into comparison mode, saying he was the candidate with the ability to reach across the aisle to Republicans and implying that Clinton is beholden to special interests.
Nationally, Obama has taken a clear lead over Clinton among white men, middle-income earners and liberals, groups that were evenly divided or with whom she had the advantage two weeks ago. Overall, Obama has 46 percent to Clinton's 43 percent, a virtual tie. But Clinton had a slight 5 point lead nationally in early February, according to the AP poll.
In a boost for Obama, Sen. Christopher Dodd was to endorse him on Tuesday, according to a Democratic official close to Dodd who requested anonymity because no formal announcement had been made. Dodd's support should help Obama in the major contests in Ohio and Texas.
A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll released Monday showed that Obama and Clinton were about even in Texas, with Obama at 50 percent to Clinton's 46 percent. The poll conducted Feb. 22-24 had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Polls also showed Clinton's lead was narrowing in Ohio.
The Republican race is considered settled in favor of McCain, the veteran Arizona senator and a former Vietnam prisoner of war