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Obama, Clinton call for end to bitter squabble

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  • NEW: Prominent black leaders call for end of racially-charged debate
  • Obama says, "We share the same goals"
  • Clinton says, "Sen. Obama and I are on the same side"
  • Two Democratic camps had been engaged in heated exchanges over race
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(CNN) -- Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both called for an end to a bitter fight in a racially charged debate that has roiled the Democratic presidential contest over the last few days.

At a news conference Monday in Reno, Nevada, Obama said that he is "concerned about the tenor the campaign has taken in the last couple days."

"I think that I may disagree with Sen. Clinton or Sen. Edwards on how to get things done, but we share the same goals. We're all Democrats, we all believe in civil rights, we all believe in equal rights," said the senator from Illinois.

"I think they're good people, they are patriots and they are running because they think they can lead this country to a better place, and I don't want the campaign in this stage to degenerate into so much tit-for-tat back-and-forth that we lose sight of why all of us are doing this." Video Watch Obama call for a truce »

Obama also warned his supporters to play fair.

"If I hear my own supporters engaging in talk that I think is ungenerous or misleading or in some way is unfair, then I will speak out forcefully against them, and I hope the other campaigns take the same approach," he said.

After Obama's statement, Clinton released her own remarks, saying the heated rhetoric "I know does not reflect what is in our hearts."

"We differ on a lot of things ... but when it comes to civil rights and our commitment to diversity, when it comes to our heroes -- President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King -- Sen. Obama and I are on the same side," she said. "And in that spirit, let's come together, because I want more than anything else to ensure that our family stays together on the front lines of the struggle to expand rights for all Americans."

Two prominent African-American leaders also called for an end to the squabble, saying it was a distraction.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, told reporters the debate over race has taken the focus off serious issues like the war in Iraq, health care, and the economy, which "seems to be tanking."

"I think that is a shame," Clyburn said. "I am hopeful that our party will be allowed to lay out its vision for their country, and that cannot be done if all the focus is on distinguishing factors like race and gender rather than a shared and individual vision for where our country needs to go."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson also had blunt advice for the top Democratic contenders: Stop your sniping or risk losing the general election in November. Video Watch Jackson tell the candidates to 'get back to the issues' »

"This is in some sense an inter-league game now. The Super Bowl is in November," Jackson said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon in Washington. "There should not be so much blood-letting now around the edge issues, which could become wedge issues, until there is not the strength left to coalesce after Denver and fight the big fight."

"Let's get back to health care and student loans and affordable housing and structured inequality and ways to end this economic tsunami taking people's homes by the millions. That's my appeal," Jackson said.

The latest controversy between the Obama and Clinton camps came Sunday when Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson appeared to criticize Obama's admitted past drug use in comments at Columbia College in South Carolina.

Johnson said, "As an African-American, I'm frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Bill and Hillary Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood that -- I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book."

In Obama's recently reprinted 1995 book, "Dreams From My Father," he wrote that he was once headed in the direction of a "junkie" and a "pothead."

Former South Carolina state Rep. "I.S." Leevy Johnson, who backs Obama, called on Clinton to disavow her supporter's remarks.

"It's offensive that Sen. Clinton literally stood by and said nothing as another one of her campaign's top supporters launched a personal, divisive attack on Barack Obama," he said in a statement released by Obama's campaign. "For someone who decries the politics of personal destruction, she should've immediately denounced these attacks on the spot."

But the BET exec later said his comments referred "to Barack Obama's time spent as a community organizer and nothing else. Any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect."

Appearing Monday on CNN contributor Roland S. Martin's nationally syndicated radio show, former President Bill Clinton said Bob Johnson needs to be "taken at his word," adding that "nobody knew" what he would say and "it wasn't part of any planned strategy." Video Watch Martin's take on the interview »

"This, to me, is another example of [the Obama campaign] wanting a double standard," he said.

The two candidates are locked in an increasingly heated battle for black voters in South Carolina, which holds its Democratic primary on January 26. Video Watch what race has to do with the Democratic nomination »

Clinton's campaign has accused the Obama camp of distorting recent remarks by her and her husband that have touched off concerns among some African-American voters.

Sunday's flare-up capped days of sparring that began with Clinton's comments last week that while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement, "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done." Video Watch what Clinton says about Obama, King and the civil rights movement »

Some African-American leaders criticized the remarks as dismissive of the civil rights movement and of King, who was assassinated in 1968. On Sunday, Obama described Clinton's comments as "ill-advised" but rejected any suggestion that his campaign has been behind the complaints.

"For them to somehow suggest that we're interjecting race as a consequence of a statement she made, that we haven't commented on, is pretty hard to figure out," he said.

But Monday night, hours after both sides tried to lower the rhetoric, U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-New York, called Obama "absolutely stupid" for attacking Clinton for her comments about Lyndon Johnson and King.

"How race got into this thing is because Obama said 'race,' " said Rangel, a Clinton supporter and one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in Congress, in a TV interview on NY1.

"But there is nothing that Hillary Clinton has said that baffles me. I would challenge anybody to belittle the contribution that Dr. King has made to the world, to our country, to civil rights and the Voting Rights Act," Rangel said. "But for him to suggest that Dr. King could have signed that act is absolutely stupid. It's absolutely dumb to infer that Dr. King alone passed the legislation and signed it into law." Video Watch Rangel react to Obama's statement »

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Jackson said that to acknowledge Lyndon Johnson's contribution to the civil rights act in no way diminished King's role.

"It was a combination. Dr. King campaigned for Johnson in '64, he supported him in '65 and he stood by his side when he signed the Voting Rights Act ..." said Jackson, who was an aide to King. "So, that's not a choice between King or Johnson. They needed each other." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Charley Keyes and Rebecca Sinderbrand contributed to this report.

All About U.S. Presidential ElectionCivil RightsHillary ClintonBarack Obama

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