CHICAGO (Reuters) - The only woman to run on a major U.S. party's White House ticket quit her role in Hillary Clinton's presidential bid on Wednesday after she ignited a controversy by saying front-runner Democrat Barack Obama was ahead because he is black.
Geraldine Ferraro, the trailblazing 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate, was a member of Clinton's finance committee and raised funds for the New York senator and former first lady, a campaign spokesman said.
Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, denounced Ferraro's comments as he made a campaign appearance in Chicago on Wednesday but said he did not think they were intended to be racist.
"I think that her comments were ridiculous. I think they were wrong-headed," Obama told a news conference after being endorsed by a group of high-ranking retired military officers.
"The notion that it is of great advantage to me to be an African American named Barack Obama and pursue the presidency, I think, is not a view that has been commonly shared by the general public," he said.
Obama, who has built up a strong lead in the state-by-state contests for the Democratic nomination to face Republican John McCain in November, denied Ferraro's charge that his campaign repeatedly responded to criticism by saying it was racially motivated.
"I'm always hesitant to throw around words like racist because I don't think she intended them that way," he said.
Ferraro ignited the flap when she told a California newspaper that "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."
"And if he was a woman he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept," she said.
Ferraro defended her comments on Wednesday in a round of appearances on television news morning shows and rejected what she called attempts by Obama's campaign to paint her remark as racist.
McCain told reporters on his campaign bus ride from New Hampshire to Boston that he felt bad for Ferraro, that he knows her well, and did not believe she meant to talk about race in a negative way.
"I'm sure she doesn't mean that," he said. "I know her. She's not a person who would talk about race in any derogatory fashion, but obviously she did."
Ferraro told CBS's "The Early Show" she thought Obama had been able to mount a strong campaign against Clinton because his was a "historic candidacy" that excited the country, as her candidacy did in 1984.
"For his campaign to take that and spin it and attack Hillary and me as being racist, I tell you, it is just appalling," said Ferraro.
"My comments have been taken so out of context and have been spun by the Obama campaign as racist that it's doing precisely what they don't want done -- it's going to the Democratic Party and dividing us even more," Ferraro said in another interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Clinton, who is married to former President Bill Clinton and would be the first woman U.S. president, rejected Ferraro's published remarks on Tuesday but her campaign did not immediately break its ties with her.
That prompted the Obama campaign, which fired an adviser who called Clinton a "monster," to urge the former first lady to break with Ferraro to send a message about the negative tone of the campaign.
Obama, who has run as a candidate who will change the partisan atmosphere in Washington and work to bring people together, told NBC's "Today" show that Ferraro's remarks were an attempt to divide people.
"Part of what Geraldine Ferraro is doing, and I respect the fact that she was a trailblazer, is to participate in the kind of slice and dice politics that's about race and about gender and about this and that and that's what Americans are tired of because they recognize that when we divide ourselves in that way, we can't solve problems," he said.
Ferraro, a former U.S. representative from New York, and her presidential running mate, Walter Mondale, lost in 1984 in a landslide to Republican Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the current president's father.
The flap over Ferraro's remarks came ahead of the Mississippi nominating contest on Tuesday, which Obama won with heavy support from black voters. The two candidates are now concentrating on their campaigns on Pennsylvania, which votes on April 22.
(For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)