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Obama backer accuses Bill Clinton of suppressing vote

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  • NEW: Obama supporter says Clinton's appeals remind him of Lee Atwater's tactics
  • NEW: Bill Clinton rebukes reporter for asking about comments
  • Hillary Clinton focuses on other states, while husband campaigns in South Carolina
  • Barack Obama has said at times he feels like he is running against both Clintons
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(CNN) -- A prominent supporter of Sen. Barack Obama on Wednesday compared Bill Clinton's appeals for his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, in South Carolina to the tactics used by a former Republican strategist that are infamous within Democratic circles.

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Former President Bill Clinton responds to a reporter who asked him about criticism from the Obama campaign.

When asked about the comparison, the former president reacted with disapproval, saying it was a distraction from what voters really cared about.

In an interview with CNN, Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and an Obama backer, said some of Clinton's recent remarks on the campaign trail were appeals based on race and gender, meant to "suppress the vote, demoralize voters and distort the record."

Harpootlian said the remarks were "reminiscent of Lee Atwater," a hard-hitting Republican strategist who worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and whose tactics were reviled by many Democrats.

Atwater died in 1991.

When CNN's Jessica Yellin asked Clinton about Harpootlian's comments, Clinton disputed the charge and lashed out, saying: "You live for this. This hurts the people of South Carolina." Video Watch Clinton rebuke the media »

"Because the people of South Carolina come to these meetings and ask questions about what they care about, " he said. "And what they care about is not what's going to be in the news coverage tonight, because you don't care about it."

"What you care about is this. And the Obama people know that. So they just spin you up on this and you happily go along," Clinton told Yellin. "And that's not right. That is not right. This election ought to belong to those people who are out here asking questions about their lives."

The former president's angry response comes just days before the South's first Democratic contest on Saturday and is the latest in a series of heated exchanges between the Obama and Clinton camps.

Sen. Hillary Clinton is focusing her attention on states with contests next month on "Super Tuesday," leaving the campaigning for this week's South Carolina primary to her husband.

South Carolina's primary is the Democrats' last big contest before Super Tuesday on February 5, when two dozen states hold primaries or caucuses.

The senator from New York is zigzagging across the country, while Bill Clinton makes the rounds in South Carolina and doubles up the attacks on Obama.

Obama sees his rival's absence as a good thing, according to Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent David Brody, who interviewed the senator from Illinois on Tuesday.

"He believes that it is a sign, in essence, the fact that she's leaving the state -- that that bodes well for him," Brody said.

"He was talking about the fact that she had said that ... he's not running against Bill Clinton. But then, at the same time, Bill Clinton is here in South Carolina by proxy, running against Barack Obama down here in South Carolina."

The 42nd president has been immersed in the intense, back-and-forth exchanges between his wife and Obama, who said this week in a debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that he sometimes can't tell which one he's running against in the race.

The former president has attacked Obama in recent days, accusing him of overstating his opposition to the Iraq war, complaining about Obama's union supporters in the Nevada caucuses last weekend and blasting his remarks on former President Reagan in a newspaper interview. Video Watch the battle brewing between the Clintons and Obama »

Clinton on Wednesday tried to distance himself from the attacks, telling a CNN correspondent that the rhetoric was "crazy" and "getting a little carried away."

But earlier in the day, the Clinton campaign launched a radio ad in South Carolina that takes another jab at Obama, highlighting some of his recent comments on the Republican Party.

The ad plays a portion of his interview with the Reno Journal-Gazette in which Obama said in part, "The Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years."

The ad's narrator asks, "Really? Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today? Ideas like special tax breaks for Wall Street?"

The narrator goes on to say, "Running up a $9 trillion debt. Refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis. Are those the ideas Barack Obama's talking about?"

Obama's campaign has said the Clintons are mischaracterizing his comments, and Obama spokesman Bill Burton called it a "negative, dishonest attack." Video Watch what the exchanges could mean for the election »

"The fact that Hillary Clinton has praised Ronald Reagan and supported some of the very worst Republican ideas just underscores that she will say or do anything to get elected," Burton said.

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CNN political analyst Gloria Borger said the Clintons "know exactly what they are doing."

"This may be a very smart political strategy for them. They've gotten Obama a little bit off his game right now because he's busy responding to Bill Clinton, and that's not what he wanted to be doing," Borger said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Candy Crowley, Alexander Mooney, Rebecca Sinderbrand, Jessica Yellin and Brian Todd contributed to this report.

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