WILKES-BARRE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Barack Obama praised supporters of rival Hillary Clinton on Tuesday to try to win their vote in Pennsylvania’s crucial April 22 contest or, failing that, ensure their backing in the November presidential election.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania where the two will face off in a closely watched primary three weeks away, Obama made a point of complementing supporters of Clinton, who would be the first woman president, for their enthusiasm.
“It’s true that Senator Clinton’s folks are passionate, my folks are passionate,” Obama told a rally, though he added that some comments from supporters on both sides had created “some bad blood” over the past few months.
With sharp exchanges between Obama and Clinton campaigns grabbing the media spotlight in the past few weeks, many Democrats fear a prolonged bitter fight between the two could harm the eventual presidential nominee later.
Some prominent backers of Obama are concerned that if the Democratic race drags on too long, it will bolster Republican John McCain in the November election and widen divisions within the party between Obama’s supporters and those of Clinton.
But recently the two candidates have toned down their attacks on each other to begin healing divisions that could cost them the White House.
Over the past few days, Obama has reserved most of his criticisms for McCain. At almost every campaign stop, he has said the differences he has with Clinton “pale in comparison” to the differences with McCain, an Arizona senator.
Obama also has tried to distance himself from calls by some of his own supporters for Clinton, who lags behind the Illinois senator, to consider exiting the campaign. Clinton has said she has not plans to withdraw.
“I have a lot of respect for Senator Clinton and I think she deserves to be able to run as long as she wants,” Obama said in response to a question about whether the party would be able to mend its rifts. “We are going to come together.”
On NBC’s “Today” program, Obama reiterated Clinton should stay in the race “as long as she wants” and praised her tenacity. “She is running a formidable race,” he said.
Some Democrats have said the best way to unite Democrats would be to have Obama and Clinton run on a joint ticket. Last month, Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, floated the idea of a joint ticket headed by her with Obama as the vice presidential candidate.
Obama rejected that idea. Some supporters of the Illinois senator, who would be the first black U.S. president, were outraged at her suggestion that Obama consider the No. 2 slot on the ticket when he was ahead in the race.
Pressed in the NBC interview on whether he would consider asking Clinton to become his running mate should he get the nomination, Obama said it was premature to discuss that.
“Ultimately, I think that what we have to do is settle the presidential nomination and what’s more important than anything is not my ambitions, Sen. Clinton’s ambitions, how we divvy up power,” Obama said. “What’s most important is, how can we deliver for the American people.”
Obama seemed to be paying particular attention to women voters, who have been core supporters of Clinton, as he took a six-day bus tour through Pennsylvania, a state where the New York senator is heavily favored to win.
Obama lavished attention on several older women working in a chocolate factory in eastern Pennsylvania on Monday. When someone referred to the gray-haired women as “old ladies,” he told them, “I don’t see any old ladies. I see some very sweet ones.”
(Additional reporting by David Morgan; editing by David Wiessler)
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