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 Tuesday'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 all the maneuvering, Democrats are without a contested election on Tuesday.
High stakes for Republicans in Michigan
That was in contrast to the Republican campaign, where McCain and Romney battled in a Michigan primary that neither could afford to lose.
"I will not rest until Michigan is back," said Romney, a native son who jabbed at his rival for saying many jobs among the thousands lost will never return.
"We will create new jobs," insisted McCain, who also favors improvements in federal programs for laid-off workers. "We have the innovation, the talent, the knowledge and the ability ... to regain Michigan's position as the best in the world."
Polls showed McCain and Romney in a close race, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee running third.
Of the three, Romney is most in need of a victory as he looks to restore at least some of the luster lost with defeats in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Several associates have suggested the former Massachusetts governor may quit the race unless he prevails.
McCain won the state's primary eight years ago on the strength of independent voters, and hopes for a reprise on Tuesday. He has regained the lead in the national polls that he enjoyed months ago — before his campaign nearly came apart over the summer.
Huckabee campaigned on economic issues during the day.
"Some of the toughest competition your company faces is from its own government, whose tax policies, whose regulatory policies, the threat of litigation, makes it real tough to stay in business," he told employees at a Demmer Corp. plant near Lansing that makes armored personnel carriers for the military.
Romney went before the Detroit Economic Club for a speech meant to appeal to laid-off workers as well as voters who recall his father's tenure as governor a generation ago.
A former Massachusetts governor, Romney promised to convene a White House summit within 100 days of taking office to produce a solution to the auto industry's long-term slide.
McCain spoke constantly of the productivity of Michigan workers. "As president of the United States, I will herald a new day for Michigan," he said.
For much of the day, both Clinton and Obama seemed content to engage in increasingly accusatory campaign tactics.
Trying to ‘knock us off message’
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 was 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," he said.
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.
Clinton: ‘We have to bring our party together’
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."
Next up for the Democrats were precinct caucuses Saturday in Nevada. There, Clinton's supporters awaited a court ruling on a lawsuit seeking a last-minute change in rules they agreed to months ago. Their objective was to prevent several caucuses along the Las Vegas Strip, where thousands of Culinary Workers Union employees — many of them Hispanic or black — hold jobs.
The rules were approved in March, when the former first lady was the overwhelming national front-runner in the race. But the union voted last week to endorse Obama, and the lawsuit followed.
Edwards is campaigning aggressively in both Nevada and South Carolina, and his aides circulated a memo during the day saying both his rivals were "deeply flawed." It said both Clinton and Obama might be unable to win the White House in November, and that Edwards, alone, was strong enough to fight the Republicans and corporate interests all the way to victory.
Origins of a dustup
Obama's comments about the attacks on him came in Nevada several days after race became a subject of controversy in his contest with Clinton, who is trying to become the first woman to win the Oval office.
The issue flared after Clinton said it had taken President Lyndon B. Johnson, a white politician, to finally realize King's dream of racial equality by signing the Civil Rights Act. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and the highest-ranking black member of Congress, expressed unhappiness over that as well as remarks her husband, former President Clinton, had made that were critical of Obama.
The former president has made several appearances on black radio programs to ease concerns, while his wife appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday and accused Obama's campaign of distorting her comments.