Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain sparred over terrorism in Iraq in a prelude to a possible general election fight between the two candidates. Hillary Rodham Clinton, going into two must-win contests next week, sought Thursday to win over voters with a focus on childhood hunger and the struggling U.S. economy.
Clinton, whose once-powerful candidacy was dealt blows after losing 11 straight nominating contests, needs to win contests Tuesday in Texas and Ohio. She was unveiling on Thursday proposals aimed at improving childhood nutrition and halving over the next 12 years the number of youngsters living in poverty in the U.S. Currently, almost 13 million children live in poverty.
Clinton has argued that, unlike Obama _ a first-term senator _ she has the experience to fix America's various woes, from poverty and job losses to foreign policy challenges.
Obama has responded by accusing the former first lady of being a Washington insider while arguing that Americans need change _ the theme of his campaign.
The mockery Obama endured Wednesday from McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, underscored that the two consider each other likely general election rivals, even though the Democratic contest remains unsettled.
McCain criticized Obama for saying in Tuesday night's Democratic debate that, after U.S. troops were withdrawn, as president he would act "if al-Qaida is forming a base in Iraq."
"I have some news. Al-Qaida is in Iraq. It's called `al-Qaida in Iraq,'" McCain told a crowd in Tyler, Texas.
Obama quickly responded from Ohio that the terror group did not exist in Iraq until President George W. Bush and McCain "decided to invade Iraq." He said he intended to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq to concentrate on rooting out al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama later said he would "reserve the right to go in and strike al-Qaida if they were in Iraq" without detailing what kind of strike that might be _ air, ground or both.
The Iraq conflict has emerged as a fault line in the general election, and throughout the primary season McCain has repeatedly attacked Obama and Clinton for saying they would withdraw the troops.
Amid the bickering, New York City's billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, ended two-years of speculation by saying he would not run for president.
"I have watched this campaign unfold, and I am hopeful that the current campaigns can rise to the challenge by offering truly independent leadership," Bloomberg wrote in an opinion column in Thursday's edition of The New York Times.
Both McCain and Obama have been successful partly because of their appeal to independent voters. In recent weeks, Obama has also increasingly cut into Clinton's base of support _ female and working class voters.
Clinton is counting on Ohio, where polls show her with a slim lead, and Texas _ a much tighter race _ to keep her afloat. Even some of her supporters concede she must win in both states to keep her bid alive.
The two states, along with smaller races in Rhode Island and Vermont, offer a total of 370 delegates for the Democrats.
In Texas, early voting in urban areas being targeted by Obama has swelled to record numbers, outpacing the otherwise high turnout in areas of the state viewed as more favorable to Clinton. That could imperil her chances there, even as a large percentage of Democrats in Clinton's targeted areas have also cast early ballots.
Her strategy in Texas is to accrue smaller delegate numbers over broader areas of the state, with the hope of topping Obama, overall.
On Thursday, Clinton focused on Ohio, spelling out her childhood nutrition and poverty proposal at a child care development center.
The package of proposals includes a "comprehensive" early education initiative and calls for universal nursery school programs. It also calls for stronger programs aimed at cutting teen pregnancy as well as toughening child support enforcement programs, according to background documents provided to The Associated Press that outline the proposals.
The focus on children living in poverty would bolster minority children, Clinton says, as roughly one-third of black children living in poverty and 28 percent of Hispanic youngsters living in poor households. That compares with the roughly 10 percent of white children in poverty, she says.
"While we celebrate America as a place where an individual's circumstances at birth should not determine his or her life chances, the fact is that economic mobility is now in decline in America," Clinton's background documents say. "Children born in poverty are likely to live in poverty their whole lives."
Obama currently has 1,375 delegates to Clinton's 1,277. A total of 2,025 are needed to secure the Democratic nomination at the party's convention in late August.
The Republican race is considered settled in favor of McCain, a senator and former Vietnam prisoner of war. He has a total of 1,014 of the 1,191 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at the Republican convention in September. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, trails with 257 delegates.