Hillary Clinton tried yesterday to bring Barack Obama's aspirational candidacy back to earth, repeatedly accusing him of misleading voters in an attempt to halt his poll momentum ahead of tomorrow's Super Tuesday contest.
With opinion polls showing Obama making significant gains ahead of the contest in 22 states, Clinton tried to undermine Obama's central appeal of being a politician who operated above the fray.
In an appearance on ABC television, she repeatedly accused Obama of being "misleading" or making statements that were "untrue" on issues from diplomacy to healthcare. "I really hope Senator Obama will quit deliberately mis-stating what I have said," she complained.
Obama, on the morning chat shows, was just as combative. In an interview on ABC, he suggested Clinton's history made her a polarising figure and that he was more electable. "I think I can get votes that Senator Clinton can't get," he said.
The two contenders for the Democratic nomination are now in a virtual dead-heat for the party nomination ahead of Super Tuesday. The two are spending $19m (£9.5m) on ads in the final hours of the contest. Obama is advertising in 21 of the 22 states, while Clinton is targeting 19, having apparently given up on Alaska, Colorado, Kansas and Missouri. Neither is running television ads in Obama's home state of Illinois.
In the Republican race, John McCain could barely disguise his confidence that he would emerge tomorrow as the winner. "I assume that I will get the nomination of the party," McCain told reporters.
Clinton, asked about the erosion of her poll lead on early-morning television interviews, said: "This was always going to be a close election."
She used the talkshows to claim that Obama's healthcare plan represented a surrender to the health industry lobbyists who oppose universal coverage. "It looks like it was written by the health insurance companies," she said. "He is playing right into all the arguments against this core issue of the Democratic party."
She stressed that as a battle-scarred veteran she could better withstand Republican attacks. "General elections are much more contested. The other side has no compunction about raising any issue against anyone they are running against," she said.
Weekend polls confirmed the trend that Obama is closing the gap. A Washington Post-ABC news poll yesterday showed Clinton on 47% to Obama's 43%.
MSNBC-McClatchy, polling in key battleground states, also had Obama gaining on Clinton. He was ahead in Georgia, which has a large African-American population, by 47% to 41%. The poll even showed him catching up with Clinton in her own backyard, with a gap of only 7% in New Jersey. In Arizona, which had been thought to be for Clinton because of its large Latino population, she was on 43% and Obama on 41%.
The Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press said in its poll that Obama had made important inroads among white male voters, especially middle-aged and middle-income voters who had previously been solidly behind Clinton. It said he had picked up a significant share of John Edwards's support following his exit from the race last week. The poll put Clinton on 46% of the vote nationally, against 38%.
In addition, the poll detected growing unease among Democratic voters at the idea of having Bill Clinton back in the White House, with 41% expressing concern, up from 34% in October.
Both camps were using the final hours of the campaign to appeal to core constituencies - although there was an agreed pause for last night's Superbowl.
On the Republican side, Romney managed to chalk up a victory on Saturday in the caucuses in Maine but polls suggest McCain will be hard to stop tomorrow.
Pew gave McCain a formidable lead nationally, with 42% of the vote against 22% for Romney. McCain now dominates all segments of the Republican electorate, except for evangelical voters, where he is level with Mike Huckabee, the poll said.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008