COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - In a slap at his top competitor, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Thursday that the most important thing the next president can bring to the White House is the ability to unite the country.
The Illinois senator did not mention rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is viewed unfavorably by nearly half the general public but is beating him in national and most state polls of the Democratic primary race. But he built the argument that the United States can't afford another polarizing president.
"The reason that this president has failed to lead this country is because he hasn't been able to unite our country. He's polarized us when he should have pulled us together," Obama said in a speech to the College Democrats of America convention at the University of South Carolina. "That's why the experience we need in the next president is the ability to bring this country together.
"It's not enough to just change parties," Obama said.
In South Carolina and during a visit to New Hampshire earlier Thursday, Obama compared Clinton to President Bush because she has said she will not have unconditional meetings with foreign enemies. He told the College Democrats that her approach showed "stubbornness" and in New Hampshire he referred to her as "Bush-Cheney lite."
Clinton called the comparison "silly" during an interview on CNN. She questioned Obama's adherence to the hope he preaches on the campaign trail.
"I've been called a lot of things in my life but I've never been called George Bush or Dick Cheney certainly," she said. "We have to ask what's ever happened to the politics of hope?"
Clinton said rushing into presidential-level meetings with the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba, Syria and Iran could put the power and prestige of the United States at risk. Obama has said the United States should talk to everyone.
"It's time to turn the page on an era of Bush-Cheney diplomacy and reach out to the rest of the world again," Obama said. "Refusing to engage in tough, smart diplomacy with world leaders we don't like doesn't show your strength, it shows your stubbornness, and we don't need another eight years of that."
Both campaigns sought to play up the fight, with Obama's team sending audio of his "Bush-Cheney lite" comment to radio stations and Clinton's camp posting video of his statement and her response on CNN on her Web site.
Another rival, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, criticized both sides, saying, "There is nothing new about this kind of politics and it certainly doesn't demonstrate a readiness to lead the nation when our reputation around the world is in tatters."