LAS VEGAS -- Careful not to rekindle a controversy over race, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama said Tuesday at a Democratic presidential debate here -- on the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- that they would rein in their aides and supporters.
"We're all family in the Democratic Party," Clinton said. Obama said all the Democrats were pledged to racial equality.
The debate comes before Nevada's Saturday caucus vote, the first in a western state, the first in a state with a significant Hispanic vote and the only one to feature just Obama, Clinton and John Edwards.
Because of the fireworks over race that preceded the two-hour encounter on MSNBC the last few days, the rivals seemed to take pains not to be seen as throwing elbows, especially since there's another vote coming up, Jan. 26, in South Carolina, where over half the primary voters are expected to be African Americans.
After calling a truce Monday after a quickly escalating war of words fueled by staffers and surrogates -- the most heated in the almost yearlong campaign -- Obama and Clinton were pressed about how the situation even developed.
"We both have exuberance and sometimes uncontrollable supporters," Clinton said. Asked whether Robert Johnson, the BET founder who alluded to Obama's past drug use, would continue to be part of campaign events, Clinton only said he had issued a clarifying statement.
"Our staff get overzealous," said Obama. "They start saying things that I would not say. And it is my responsibility to make sure that we're setting a clear tone in our campaign."
Obama was responding to a question about a memo a staffer compiled about Bill and Hillary Clinton and race.
Obama, the first viable African-American contender, was asked if the discussion about race was a deliberate attempt to marginalize him.
"No," said Obama. "I think what happened in Iowa is a testimony to the fact that the American public is willing to judge people on the basis of who can best deliver the kinds of changes that they're so desperately looking for."
The debate highlighted a state issue that Congress has grappled with, the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Obama, Clinton and John Edwards oppose Yucca, taking the popular local position. Clinton reminded Edwards he twice voted for Yucca as a senator.
The debate showed a difference in approach to the Oval Office, with Obama, running an aspirational campaign, saying he didn't see the presidency as a hands-on exercise and Clinton, stressing her readiness from "day one," saying that without skills in managing the federal bureaucracy, debacles like the handling of Hurricane Katrina cannot be avoided.