New York — Barack Obama accuses Hillary Rodham Clinton of making an "unfortunate" remark about Martin Luther King Jr. She retorts that King's a hero to her - and no one should be thinking Obama is a new MLK.
Racial politics, quietly simmering for months, have burst into the open in the Democratic nomination fight between the woman who would be the first female president and the man who would be the first black. Will it make a difference to voters, black or white?
The first big test will be in the South Carolina primary a week from Saturday. It will be the first Democratic primary this year in a state with a substantial black population.
Clinton spent part of Monday praising King, the civil rights leader who was killed in 1968. Speaking at a ceremony honoring him in New York, she said, "I remember hearing him speak when I went with my church to downtown Chicago to see and hear for myself someone who had burst through the stereotypes and the caricatures, who could not be held back by being beaten or gassed or jailed."
But the Obama campaign and a lot of other people were still talking about her comment that came out over the weekend, to the effect that King's dream of racial equality was realized only when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
The remark didn't sit well with Audrey Quantano, a Harlem resident who said she hasn't made up her mind about whom to vote for. She described herself as a longtime Clinton supporter, but she was not happy about the comment about King.
In South Carolina, on the other hand, Lonnie Randolph, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said voters won't be swayed by "a sound bite taken out of context." Still, he said he wasn't surprised race had become an issue. "Remember this is America. Everything we do is about race," Randolph said.
Later Monday, Clinton and Obama stepped back from the controversy, agreeing that a prolonged clash over civil rights could harm their party's overall drive to win the White House.
Obama was the first to try and quell the controversy, 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."
Clinton's campaign issued a statement an hour later, saying it was time to seek common ground.