January 13, 2008 / 5:10 PM / 10 years ago

WRAPUP 2-Clinton battles to keep U.S. black support

(adds color, quotes, Obama proposal)

By Jeff Mason

COLUMBIA, S.C., Jan 13 (Reuters) - Faced with potential loss of black support, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton said on Sunday her chief rival for the Democratic nomination Barack Obama was distorting her comments on race.

Democrats face a major nominating test on Jan. 26 in South Carolina, where blacks form an important voting bloc for the party. Clinton has been criticized for recent comments that some interpreted as giving President Lyndon Johnson more credit for advancing civil rights that Martin Luther King.

”Dr. King didn’t just give speeches. He marched. He organized. He protested,“ Clinton said on NBC’s ”Meet the Press.“ ”And he campaigned for political leaders including Lyndon Johnson because he wanted someone in the White House who would act on what he had devoted his life to achieving.

“The Obama campaign is deliberately distorting this,” the New York senator said of the man who is her main competition for the Democratic presidential nomination in the November election.

Obama, a senator from Illinois, would be the first black president and is getting a lot of support from that important Democratic constituency. But Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have long had deep good will in the black community and she is trying not to lose that.

Obama responded on a conference call that he never commented on her remarks that “offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King’s role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act. She is free to explain that but the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous.”

While Democrats prepared for contests in Nevada on Saturday and South Carolina a week later, Republicans focused on Michigan on Tuesday and South Carolina on Saturday.

ECONOMY THE TOP WORRY

Clinton spoke at a church in Columbia, South Carolina, and a member of the predominantly black congregation demonstrated the changing mood of the presidential race, which has seen the sagging economy become the top worry for voters ahead of the war in Iraq.

“The economy to me is the big issue here,” said Andrea Gray, 60, adding that the economy was more important to her than race in the campaign.

Obama addressed the economy by proposing a $75 billion stimulus plan as he started his campaigning in Nevada.

The plan included an immediate $250 tax credit to workers that could double if the economy worsens, a one-time $250 supplement to Social Security payments, $10 billion to help homeowners facing foreclosure and a $10 billion to bolster states facing budget shortfalls amid the uncertain economy.

“We need that middle-class tax cut now more than ever -- not five months from now or five weeks from now but now,” Obama said in a statement.

Clinton introduced her $70 billion stimulus plan on Friday and Republican former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney planned to give a major speech on the economy on Monday in Michigan, where his father was a popular governor in the 1960s. Michigan is seen as crucial for him after two straight second place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Romney said on CNN’s “Late Edition” that Michigan was not a “do or die” state and he intended to continue the fight through Feb. 5 when 22 states hold nominating contests.

But during the weekend he received a series of blows with the Detroit News releasing a poll showing John McCain edging slightly ahead, three Michigan newspapers endorsing the Arizona senator and a former Republican governor who worked closely with Romney’s father reportedly backing McCain.

Touring the state on Sunday, McCain said his tenure as head of the Senate Commerce Committee qualified him to handle economic problems faced by the auto industry in Michigan and defended a recent campaign mailing calling Romney “worse” than Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm for raising taxes and fees in Massachusetts.

Giuliani, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” denied his campaign was in trouble and running out of money after a number of top campaign workers decided to forego their salaries.

Giuliani, calling the decision on salaries “a very generous gesture” is skipping Michigan and South Carolina and is focusing all his attention on Florida on Jan. 29.

“The campaign has enough money to compete here in Florida,” he said as he was about to embark on a three-day bus tour of the state. “We’re certainly competitive. We have enough money to get our message out.”

Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Jeremy Pelofsky in Michigan, Jim Loney in Florida, Adam Tanner in Nevada, Joanne Kenen in Washington; Writing by David Wiessler; Editing by Bill Trott For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/

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