Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama publicly declared a truce on issues of race and gender as they cordially sparred at a debate in Las Vegas that also included former Sen. John Edwards.
Senators Clinton and Obama had been sniping at each other for days in a back-and-forth that left many Democrats worried about an adverse impact on the party's prospects for the general election.
Clinton had offended some blacks when she said that despite the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s eloquence, it took a practical politician like President Lyndon Johnson to make the civil rights act a reality. The Obama campaign called that an affront to King's legacy.
But during the MSNBC debate, Clinton seemed to blame rogue elements in both campaigns for fueling the fire.
"Sen. Obama and I agree that neither race nor gender should be part of the campaign," she said. "We both have exuberant and sometimes uncontrollable supporters."
The issue of race was briefly joined by another sensitive issue when moderator Brian Williams asked Obama about e-mail and Internet rumors that he is secretly a Muslim, that he took the oath of office on a Quran — not a Bible — and that he refuses to recite the pledge of allegiance.
Obama chuckled as he listened and then said, "Let's make clear what the facts are: I am a Christian, I have been sworn in with a Bible, I pledge allegiance and lead the pledge of allegiance sometimes in the United States Senate when I've presided."
He called the rumors "lies" and said, "The American people are, I think, smarter than folks give them credit for."
Edwards was also asked about race and gender by moderator Natalie Morales, though her question left Clinton exclaiming in the background, "Poor John!"
What is a white male to do, Morales asked, running against these historic candidacies? It was a reference to his two opponents being the first viable black and female presidential candidates. Edwards just said he is proud of that fact, that they had both asked not to be considered on their gender or their race, and "I respect that. And I think it says really good things about America."
This is the first time that the Nevada caucuses have been held in January. The national Democratic Party moved up the date so a western state with a substantial Latino population would have an impact on the nomination process. Some of the issues raised during the debate were local.
Nevada has the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation, and the candidates touted their plans to alleviate the crisis. The other Nevada issue was the perennial controversy over Yucca Mountain, the site of a proposed federal repository for nuclear waste.
All three candidates said they oppose construction of the facility, but Clinton went a step further, trying to raise doubts about where her opponents stood. She charged that one of Obama's major contributors heads a corporation that has spent millions of dollars trying to get the project under way. She said Edwards had voted twice in the Senate in favor of the Yucca Mountain Repository.
Obama rejected the criticism, saying that it is a sign of his commitment that he has maintained his opposition to the proposed nuclear waste dump even though his home state of Illinois generates more of its electricity from nuclear power than any other state. Edwards suggested that his votes in favor of Yucca Mountain were so long ago, they were no longer relevant and that he had been opposed to the waste site "for years."
But one way or another, the conversation kept returning to race. Moderator Tim Russert asked Obama whether he believes that there is a history of division between Latinos and blacks "where a Latino won't vote for a black candidate?"
"Not in Illinois," Obama said to laughter from the crowd. "They all voted for me."
Obama was hoping his appeal to Latino voters, which make up about one-quarter of Nevada's population, would bolster his chances.