Did Bill Clinton Call Obama Unpatriotic?

A new controversy flared up in the Democratic presidential race Saturday over remarks by former President Bill Clinton whom Barack Obama's campaign accused of using divisive tactics and unfairly trying to question the Illinois senator's patriotism.

Retired Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeak, a co-chair of Obama's campaign, said he was astonished and disappointed by recent comments the former president made while speculating about a general election between Obama's Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Republican John McCain.

Standing next to Obama on stage at a campaign rally in southern Oregon, the retired Air Force chief of staff repeated Bill Clinton's comments aloud to a silent audience.

The former president told a group of veterans Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina: "I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country. And people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics."

McPeak then said to his Oregon audience: "As one who for 37 years proudly wore the uniform of our country, I'm saddened to see a president employ these tactics. He of all people should know better because he was the target of exactly the same kind of tactics."

That apparently was a reference to Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, when he was accused of dodging the Vietnam War draft.

Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton's campaign, said Saturday that McPeak's comments were a "deliberately pathetic misreading of what the president said." Wolfson said the remarks had nothing to do with Obama and were merely meant to underscore the need to keep the presidential race focused on issues.

Hillary Clinton, the New York senator, had no campaign events scheduled Saturday.

It was not the first time Bill Clinton has been criticized for comments while campaigning on his wife's behalf. Before and after South Carolina's primary in January, the former president was accused of fanning racial tensions for appearing to cast Obama as little more than a black candidate popular in a state with a heavily black electorate.

The latest controversy came at the end of a rough week for the Obama campaign in which the Illinois senator was battered over incendiary remarks by his longtime pastor that were portrayed as unpatriotic.

However, Obama engaged in damage control with a major speech Tuesday on the issue of race. That speech helped Obama gain a key endorsement, the backing of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, himself a former Democratic presidential candidate.

The nod from Richardson had been sought by both Obama and Clinton. Bill Clinton even went to Richardson's New Mexico home in January to watch America's premier television sporting event, the Super Bowl football championship.

Richardson had served the former president as U.N. ambassador and energy secretary and the endorsement was seen as a rebuke to Hillary Clinton's candidacy.

"You are a once-in-a-lifetime leader," Richardson said, speaking at a spirited rally Friday in Portland, Oregon, with Obama at his side. "Above all, you will be a president who brings this nation together."

Oregon does not hold its primary until May 20. The next Democratic primary contest is on April 22 in Pennsylvania.

The Richardson endorsement was a blow to the Clinton campaign which has been urging remaining uncommitted superdelegates - party officials and elected officials who are free to vote for whomever they choose at the party's national convention - to hold off on endorsing a candidate until the end of the primary season in June.

Obama currently leads the all-important overall delegate count with 1,620 to Clinton's 1,499. But neither candidate is likely to get enough delegates in the remaining primaries and caucuses to reach the 2,024 needed to win nomination at the party's convention in late August in Denver. That means they must rely on support from superdelegates to become the nominee.

Richardson's backing of Obama, who aspires to become America's first black president, could help bring other superdelegates to the Illinois senator's side. The New Mexico governor could also help boost support for Obama among fellow Hispanics, who have largely backed Clinton.

Richardson, who has been mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate, told Democrats it was time to stop bickering and get behind Obama as the party's nominee. The Clinton campaign dismissed the endorsement.

Senior strategist Mark Penn, noting Clinton's February victory in the New Mexico primary, said, "Perhaps the time when he could have been most effective has long since past." Penn added that he did not think it was a "significant endorsement."

Whether intentionally timed or not, the Richardson endorsement came as Obama needed the boost after the widely circulated inflammatory snippets of sermons that showed the Rev. Jeremiah Wright claiming the United States had brought the Sept. 11 attacks on itself and asking God to damn America for racial bigotry.

While condemning the remarks, Obama refused in a major speech on race this week to "disown" Wright, who married the candidate and his wife and baptized their children.

Richardson heaped praise on Obama's speech about the nation's racial divide.

"As a Hispanic-American, I was particularly touched by his words," Richardson said. "Senator Obama has started a discussion in this country that is long overdue and rejects the politics of pitting race against race."

There were also personal aspects to Richardson's swing behind Obama. He noted that both are the sons of one foreign-born parent - Obama's father was from Kenya, Richardson's mother was from Mexico.

McPeak also had made off-the-cuff remarks to reporters Friday in comparing the former president's comments with the actions of Joseph McCarthy, the 1950s communist-hunting senator.

"I grew up, I was going to college when Joe McCarthy was accusing good Americans of being traitors, so I've had enough of it," McPeak said.

Wolfson called that comparison outrageous and called for a retraction.

"I think most Democrats were shocked to learn that a two-term Democratic president was compared to Joseph McCarthy," he said.

With the Republican nomination secured, McCain was free to burnish his foreign policy and national security credentials on a weeklong overseas congressional trip that took him to the Middle East and Europe, including a stopover in Iraq.

On Friday, the veteran Arizona senator met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Afterwards, he said China is harming its world image with its crackdown in Tibet and expressed hope Beijing would seek a peaceful solution to the crisis.

McCain did not discuss the issue with Sarkozy, but told reporters later in the courtyard of the French presidential Elysee Palace that the subject of Tibet would be "one of the first things I would talk about if I were president of the United States today."