WASHINGTON -- Radioactive for more than a decade, universal health insurance emerged Thursday as a 2008 Democratic presidential primary issue for chief rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Obama delivered an ambitious first campaign pledge: health care coverage for everyone by the end of 2012.
"I am absolutely determined that by the end of the first term of the next president, we should have universal health care in this country,'' Obama told a health care group dealing with the problems of the millions of uninsured in the United States.
As first lady, Clinton was given the health portfolio in 1992 by President Bill Clinton. She dropped her bid to create universal health care after it was undermined by the health insurance lobby as "Hillarycare" and fizzled in a Democratic-controlled Congress.
On Thursday, Clinton set down a marker for her presidential campaign, telling a meeting of the nations' mayors, "I believe we still need to make a commitment to universal health care."
Clinton said she has "scars" from her rough health care battle, but it gave her important experience. "So I'm an expert on how you have to handle this health care debate now."
Obama, Clinton and the other major 2008 contender, former Sen. John Edwards, all advocate versions of universal health care and plan to offer proposals later.
Most health insurance in the United States is obtained through employers, and Obama said it may be time to sever the link and ask if "the employer-based system of health care itself is still the best for providing insurance to all Americans."
Clinton's openness to revamping health insurance delivery back in 1992 and 1993 triggered an uproar by opponents who claimed the nation was headed to Canadian-style coverage and health care rationing.
Obama argued that the political and economic climate has changed and what is costly to business is "caution."
He added, "We are not in 1992. We are not in 1993. We are not in 1994. We do not have to be intimidated."
Sharpton 2008 shopping
The Rev. Al Sharpton courted Obama, Clinton and 2008 hopefuls Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden in Capitol Hill meetings as he said he would entertain running again if his civil rights agenda was not addressed.
Clinton and Obama both praised Sharpton and assured him they cared about his views and agenda.
Obama, the only African American in the 2008 contest, was asked if he would have any trouble winning black votes:
"If you look at the black vote in my U.S. Senate race or my approval ratings back in Illinois, I feel pretty confident that once folks know who I am, then we will be just fine."