The issues of race and gender have crept into the battle between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

The next two contests in the state-by-state nomination battle in the Democratic race are the Nevada caucuses on Saturday and the South Carolina primary a week later.

Clinton and Obama are battling for the lead in both states, with former senator John Edwards of North Carolina trailing behind.

South Carolina will be a major test of the Democratic candidate's abilities to win the support of African-American voters, who make up nearly half the primary electorate in that state.

Some African-American leaders have complained about comments Hillary Clinton made to Fox news last week about the legacy of the late civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Junior.

"Doctor King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964," she said.

Some black political leaders felt the comment diminished Dr. King's role in the U.S. struggle for civil rights.

Senator Clinton accused the Obama campaign of trying to insert racial politics into the contest for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Clinton was interviewed on NBC's Meet the Press.

"Clearly, we know from media reports that the Obama campaign is deliberately distorting this," said Clinton. "I do not think either of us want to inject race or gender in this campaign."

Senator Obama rejected that charge during a campaign stop in South Carolina.

"For them, somehow, to suggest we are interjecting race as a consequence of a statement she made that we have not commented on, it is pretty hard to figure out," said Obama.

South Carolina is looming as a major contest in the Democratic race between Clinton and Obama, a battle many experts believe will go on for some time.

"They both have plenty of resources. They both have plenty of endorsements," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a political newsletter in Washington. "Each has a base [of support], a committed base. They each have slightly different messages, both of which appeal to the broad spectrum of the Democratic electorate. This Democratic race is really competitive and is up for grabs."

Senator Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have often drawn strong support in their political campaigns from African-American voters.

While Obama seeks an edge with African-American voters, Clinton continues to shore up her support among women.

Rutgers University Professor Ross Baker says Clinton's surprise win in last week's New Hampshire primary was largely a result of a last-minute shift in support for Clinton by women voters.

"I think that she carries considerable advantages with her into the remaining primaries. She has lots of money and she obviously has gotten the support of women even more strongly, I think, than anybody had imagined," said Baker.

Clinton is seeking to become the first woman president, while Obama hopes to become the first African-American president.

One new national poll shows Obama gaining on Clinton among Democrats, following his win in the Iowa caucuses and close second-place finish to Clinton in the New Hampshire primary.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll has Clinton at 42 percent, followed by Obama at 37 percent and Edwards at 11 percent. Obama's share is up 14 percent since the same poll last month.

A second poll by New York Times and CBS News showed Clinton with 42 percent, Obama with 27 percent and Edwards 11 percent.