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Bill Clinton: What happened in South Carolina a 'myth'

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  • Bill Clinton says he did not play racial politics in South Carolina
  • The former president says his role in his wife's campaign has not changed
  • He's been accused of making racially insensitive comments while campaigning
  • Clinton: Most of the Democrats like both candidates
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(CNN) -- Former President Bill Clinton defended his role in his wife's presidential campaign in South Carolina, disputing claims he made race a campaign issue.

"What happened there is a total myth and a mugging," Clinton told CNN's Sean Callebs in New Orleans, Louisiana, over the weekend.

"It's been pretty well established. Charlie Rangel ... the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in unequivocal terms in South Carolina that no one in our campaign played any race card, that we had some played against us, but we didn't play any."

Bill Clinton was front-and-center of Hillary Clinton's campaign in South Carolina, where he delivered full-throttle verbal attacks on rival Barack Obama.

The former president accused Obama of overstating his opposition to the Iraq war, complained about Obama's union supporters in the Nevada caucuses and blasted his remarks on former President Reagan in a newspaper interview. Video Watch Bill Clinton talk about his role on the campaign trail »

Bill Clinton also set off a firestorm of criticism for comments he made that were considered by some to be racially insensitive -- like reminding people that Jesse Jackson won the state's primaries in his unsuccessful runs for the nomination in the 1980s. The remark was widely seen as a suggestion that Obama's success in the state was largely based on his race.

Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a supporter of Obama, said some of Clinton's remarks were appeals based on race and gender.

He said the comments were meant to "suppress the vote, demoralize voters and distort the record," and said they were "reminiscent of Lee Atwater." Atwater was a hard-hitting Republican strategist who worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and whose tactics were reviled by many Democrats.

Bill Clinton adamantly denied he was playing racial politics. Hillary Clinton later offered regrets for her husband's remarks, saying, "If anyone was offended by anything that was said, whether it was meant or not, whether it was misinterpreted or not, then obviously I regret that."

Obama ended up winning South Carolina with a large majority of African-American voters, while most whites voted for Clinton or former Sen. John Edwards. South Carolina's Democratic primary was January 26.

Bill Clinton insisted his role his his wife's campaign has not changed since South Carolina. When asked if he was concerned that the contest was becoming more polarized, the ex-president said he expected it to happen.

Over the past year, Clinton has seen her support among African-American voters drop, while Obama has seen his climb.

In the Mississippi primary last week, black voters chose Obama over Clinton 9-1.

Clinton brushed aside notions African-Americans were casting an anti-Clinton vote in the primaries by voting for Obama.

"Once African-Americans understood that they had a candidate with a serious chance to win the nomination and perhaps the presidency, then it was going to be a question of somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent were going to support him except in areas where she had particularly strong profile," he said.

"The fundamental fact is, most of the Democrats like both these candidates and they're trying to figure out who would be the best president, who's likely to do things or be what I need most in a president, and who's most likely to win," he added.

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Clinton was in New Orleans as part of his philanthropic effort, the Clinton Global Initiative. He urged hundreds of college students to get involved with community service.

Clinton also teamed up with actor Brad Pitt, who is heading a foundation to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Sean Callebs contributed to this report.

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