Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama seized on his endorsement by a leading anti-war group Friday to disparage rival Hillary Rodham Clinton's judgment on voting for war in Iraq, while the former first lady used the latest dire U.S. economic news to criticize President George W. Bush.
Obama's long-standing opposition to the war helped him pick up the backing of MoveOn.org, a liberal network that counts 3.2 million members. The group said Friday that it has 1.7 million members in the 22 states scheduled to vote in the race Tuesday, and it would immediately begin a campaign to get them behind Obama.
The remarks by both candidates followed a Thursday night debate in which Obama and Clinton, after weeks of infighting and bickering, adopted a new, cordial, tone ahead of the pivotal Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests that could go a long way in determining the party's presidential nominee.
The contests next week are crucial for both the Democrats and the Republicans. For the Democrats, 1,681 delegates are at stake while 2,025 delegates are needed to secure the nomination. The Republicans have 1,023 delegates at stake, and 1,191 are need to win that party's nomination.
Among the Republicans, John McCain, the veteran senator and former Vietnam prisoner-of-war has a solid lead over chief rival Mitt Romney, who vowed to press on despite a painful loss this week in Florida's nomination contest.
McCain on Thursday picked up a key endorsement from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and had earlier received the delegates from Rudy Giuliani's failed presidential bid — support that could be crucial in delegate-rich New York and California.
Among California's Democrats, anti-Iraq war sentiment could play a role in voting. Obama criticized Clinton's answer during the Thursday debate when she was asked why she voted against a 2003 amendment that would have given weapons inspectors more time in Iraq and required Bush to first obtain U.N. approval before using force. Clinton argued that a vote for the amendment would have subordinated U.S. authority in Iraq to the U.N. Security Council and called it a troublesome precedent.
"I think there continues to be a suggestion that it was not a vote for war, and I thought that her explanation with respect to the ... amendment was inaccurate," Obama said. "Anyone who looks at the ... amendment knows that we were not ceding sovereignty in some fashion to the United Nations."
First one-on-one debate
In the debate, the Democrats shared the stage alone for the first time since a heated campaign was whittled down to a history-making presidential nomination race between a black man and a woman. The two alternated between civility and subdued swipes as they sparred over immigration, health care and the war in Iraq.
Days of mean-spirited sparring between them had raised concerns among Democrats that it could cost the party the White House in the November elections.
The weakening U.S. economy was a prime topic, and both candidates said they preferred Democratic-proposed stimulus plans that would give more tax relief to low- and middle-income workers than Republican proposals would.
On Friday, Clinton seized on a new economic report that showed that U.S. employers cut jobs in January — the first such reduction in more than four years — to highlight the failings of the Bush administration and advertise her own plan, which would include extended unemployment insurance and a 5-year interest rate freeze on subprime mortgages.
"Today's report ... confirms my view that we are sliding into a second Bush recession," Clinton said in a statement Friday. "During the same month that President Bush declared that the state of our union was strong, the economy lost 17,000 jobs, the worst jobs performance in four and a half years."
Obama momentum continues
Obama latched onto the same dour report, saying Friday it drives home the need "to turn the page on the failed Bush policies of tax breaks for those who didn't need them and didn't ask for them."
In an exceedingly tight Democratic race for the White House, Obama appears to have most of the momentum, including high-profile endorsements and impressive fundraising. In addition to the anti-war group, one of California's largest unions, the Service Employees International Union, decided Friday to support him and he also picked up an endorsement from the New York City-based Transport Workers Union.
But Clinton has considerable institutional strength and is still widely favored to do better overall than Obama on Tuesday.
Neither senator is expected to clinch the Democratic nomination in the votes, due to the close race and party rules that do not permit "winner take all" state contests like those of the Republicans.
Obama's campaign reported raising a staggering $32 million in January, cash aplenty to advertise all through the nearly two dozen upcoming races from coast to coast — and contests beyond.
Clinton's campaign reported raising $26.8 million from October through December, the most recent period she reported.
McCain gains Florida, lead
Among the Republicans, McCain has taken the lead with his win this week in Florida, securing new momentum with the Schwarzenegger and Giuliani endorsements.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, planned to try to derail McCain's campaign by running a "significant" level of television ads in California and other states. Aides to McCain said he, too, was preparing to run a high volume of commercials.
After seven contests, Romney is down 83-59 with 1,191 national convention delegates needed to secure the nomination and 1,023 on the line Tuesday.
Republican Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher who won Iowa, remains in the race, but has little money and finished a distant fourth in Florida. Huckabee said he has been consistent in his conservative views on abortion, gun control and gay rights, while Romney has shifted his positions.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul has made no move to withdraw even though he scores in single digits in voting.