Bill's dicey comments put Hillary in hot seat

January 24, 2008 12:47:27 PM PST
Hillary Rodham Clinton, defending her husband's increasingly vocal role in her presidential effort, sidestepped questions about whether Bill Clinton's suggestion that Barack Obama had put a "hit job" on him was language befitting a former president.

"We're in a very heated campaign, and people are coming out and saying all kinds of things," Hillary Clinton said in an interview Wednesday. "I'm out there every day making a positive case for my candidacy. I have a lot of wonderful people, including my husband, who are out there making the case for me."

The former first lady spoke to The Associated Press before a speech here where she outlined ways to address U.S. economic challenges.

Addressing an audience at Furman University, Clinton chided President Bush for taking a hands-off approach to U.S. economic woes. Without naming him, she suggested Obama - who has said he wouldn't be "an operating officer" as president - might follow Bush's path.

"We need a president who will run the government and manage the economy," she said. "The American people don't need a president to talk about our problems, but to solve them."

With two days left before the South Carolina primary, the ongoing war of words between Bill Clinton and the Obama campaign continued to be a focus here.

At a stop near Columbia Thursday, a woman urged the former president to "stop taking the bait from Obama" and stick to the issues.

Bill Clinton called it "pretty good advice."

"When I was running, I didn't give a rip what anybody said about me," Clinton told a crowd of about 200 people. "It's weird, you know, but if you love somebody and you think that they'd be good, it's harder."

The former president has been campaigning actively for his wife here while she has focused attention on states holding contests Feb. 5.

Bill Clinton has openly predicted that Obama will win the South Carolina contest because of his popularity among black voters, even as he has lambasted the news media for its interest in the contest's racial and gender dynamic.

Obama is trying to become the nation's first black president, while Hillary Clinton hopes to be the first woman to hold the job.

The former president on Wednesday reacted angrily upon being told that Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic chairman and Obama supporter, had called the Clinton campaign "reprehensible" and suggested it had borrowed tactics from Lee Atwater, the late South Carolina GOP strategist who famously practiced negative campaigning.

In response, Bill Clinton noted that there had been no outcry from reporters when Obama put out a "hit job" on him.

He didn't elaborate on what he meant, and Hillary Clinton refused to speculate in the interview.

"He was thinking about something. You'll have to ask him what he means," she said, while calling the comparison to Atwater "outrageous."

"Talking about people's records? Talking about what they do in the campaign? That's fair game. That's what we do in America," she said. The economy, to get credit flowing again, and to raise investor confidence. It would have been difficult to predict how dependent the global economy would be on the American consumer."

In her speech, the New York senator called for immediate steps to address the U.S. housing crisis.

Clinton said the rapid rise of home foreclosures stemming from subprime mortgages had rocked global markets like no other factor. Proposed tax rebates to stimulate the U.S. economy - including those championed by Obama - were necessary but not sufficient, she said.

"It's OK, I'm for tax rebates - put some money in people's pockets, though it has to be structured in right way," Clinton said in the interview. "But all the talk of stimulus and all the planning going on with Congress and the White House is going to miss the boat if we don't stem the tide of foreclosure."

Clinton's plan to freeze home foreclosures for 90 days has been criticized by some economists who have said it would raise home interest rates across the board while unfairly favoring consumers who had gotten into risky mortgages.

Clinton rejected that argument.

"People will say, 'Why should we bail out somebody who made a bad loan?"' she said. "Because you don't want a vacant house next to you. You don't want a deteriorating neighborhood. You don't want a tax base dropping so police service to your home gets cuts. We're all in this."

"Everybody's going to benefit," he said. "My priorities were to make it immediate and quick, so we emphasized tax rebates and a supplement to Social Security. That was an element that Senator Clinton lacked in her proposal."

Obama said it is important that tax rebates be "refundable," meaning the benefit would go to lower-income earners who do not owe income taxes but pay payroll taxes. That group, he said, "is the most likely to spend immediately the money that they receive in a tax rebate."

He said he'd like to see the plan extend unemployment benefits and food stamps and offer aid to states.

Associated Press writers Mike Baker in Columbia, S.C., and Charles Babington in Kingstree, S.C. contributed to this report.