Democratic presidential rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are making a final push for support in Ohio and Texas in advance of crucial primaries on 4 March. The two Democrats took part in a contentious debate Tuesday, 26 February, that most experts rated a draw. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone reports on the U.S. presidential race from Washington.

In their latest debate, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton argued over health care, the costs and benefits of trade agreements and the war in Iraq.

Clinton was aggressive in criticizing Obama for some of his campaign tactics and in questioning some of his views on foreign policy.

Obama countered that Clinton has used some questionable campaign tactics of her own.

He also reminded the audience in Cleveland, Ohio, that Clinton initially supported President Bush's request to Congress in 2002 for the use of force against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"This was a big strategic blunder," said Obama. "Once we had 'driven the bus into the ditch,' there were only so many ways we could get out. The question is, who is making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch?"

Clinton said she would not vote the same way on Iraq now.

Obama opposed the war during his successful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 2004. But during Tuesday's debate, Clinton said Obama has not been consistent in his opposition to the war since he has been in the Senate.

"Many people gave speeches against the war then, and the fair comparison is that he did not have responsibility, he did not have to vote. By 2004, he was saying that he basically agreed with the way George Bush was conducting the war," said Clinton.

Clinton has lost 11 straight nomination contests to Obama since 5 February, and Clinton supporters were hoping for a knock out blow in the debate that would reverse his momentum.

But most political experts rated the debate essentially a tie, with neither candidate gaining a clear advantage.

Earl Black is a political science professor at Rice University in Texas. "I thought the debate was pretty much of a draw," said Black. "This is one where Hillary Clinton needed a much more decisive victory than I think she was able to gain."

Clinton is counting on victories in Texas and Ohio on 4 March to cut into Obama's lead in the delegate total. The Associated Press estimates Obama has won nearly 1,400 delegates, while Clinton has won about 1,300.  The Democratic nomination requires 2,025 total.

Republican contender John McCain has also been campaigning in Ohio and Texas in advance of Tuesday's primaries. McCain is hoping that convincing victories on 4 March will force his main remaining challenger, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, to quit the race.

But McCain was on the defensive after one of his supporters made some controversial remarks at a campaign rally Cincinnati, Ohio.

Conservative radio talk show host Bill Cunningham repeatedly used Barack Obama's middle name as he criticized the news media for being soft on Obama compared to its treatment of President Bush and the Republicans.

"The media, at some point, is going to peel the bark off of Barack Hussein Obama," said Cunningham. "The media will quit taking sides in this thing and maybe start covering Barack Hussein Obama the same way they covered Bush."

Obama's middle name comes from his father, who was from Kenya. The Obama campaign frequently points out that he was raised as a Christian to refute persistent rumors that he has a Muslim background.

McCain arrived at the rally after the comments were made and later apologized for the remarks made by Cunningham.

"I have repeatedly stated my respect for Senator Obama and Senator Clinton, and that I will treat them with respect," he said. "I regret any comments that may be made about these two individuals who are honorable Americans."

Cunningham said later he was angry at McCain for turning on him, and added that he would now support Hillary Clinton for president.