Hillary Clinton, bristling from a debate brawl with Democratic foe Barack Obama, took her 2008 campaign onto the national stage Tuesday, targeting delegate-rich states which may decide the nomination.
Senator Obama anchored himself in South Carolina, hoping to lock in victory in the next Democratic presidential primary Saturday, where most polls give him a double-digit lead, dominating the African-American vote.
Divergent travel plans revealed sharply different tactics of the two rivals, as their struggle careened toward the climax of nearly two dozen state nominating elections on "Super Tuesday," February 5.
Meanwhile the tense Republican race for the White House took another casualty Tuesday, with actor and former senator Fred Thompson pulling out of the battle after fizzling in the early primaries.
His withdrawal removed one of the most conservative candidates from the Republican field, as they headed to Florida for its benchmark January 29 primary.
Obama planned a flurry of events in South Carolina, a must-win contest for him after New York senator and former first lady Clinton swept the last two nominating contests, including Nevada on Saturday.
They took pokes at each other while leveling harsh criticism at President George W. Bush's economic management Tuesday, amid a global financial market panic that prompted an unprecedented three-quarters percent interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve.
On a swift stopover in Washington, the New York senator took a poke at her rival's performance in Monday's debate.
"I think what we saw last night was that he is very frustrated," Clinton told reporters.
"He clearly came last night looking for a fight, and he was determined and launched right in."
Obama responded in a speech on the economy in South Carolina Tuesday that it was easy to make promises on the campaign trail "and tell people what they want to hear when they want to hear it."
"But in this time of economic anxiety and uncertainty, what this country needs most is a president who says what he means and means what he says."
While Obama stayed behind in the southern state, Clinton jetted off on a cross-continental, 20-hour swing through Super Tuesday states California and Arizona and then back to the US capital.
On Wednesday, she plans to hit New Jersey, which also holds a primary on February 5.
She frustrated Obama's team by leaving her husband, former president Bill Clinton, to hold the fort in South Carolina. Obama's top strategist David Axelrod said the former president's knack for capturing a headline left his wife free to expand her powerbase elsewhere.
"They are going to position President Clinton here in his role as super-surrogate, they will take advantage of this extraordinary asset, that we will be watching carefully."
The Super Tuesday states loom for the rivals after South Carolina. In California, where the former first lady seeks an edge among Hispanic voters while Obama targets African-Americans, Hillary Clinton leads a RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls by 10 percent.
In New Jersey, she leads Obama 45 to 26 points, and in her home state of New York she has a two-to-one lead among likely primary voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll published on Tuesday.
Obama, vying to become America's first black president, has high hopes for his home state of Illinois, and southern states like Georgia with large populations of black voters.
Republicans meanwhile fired new shots over Florida, with Senator John McCain, victor in South Carolina on Saturday, hoping to seal his role as front-runner, and Rudolph Giuliani fighting to keep alive his campaign.
Having taken a huge gamble by bypassing the first nominating contests in smaller states, the former New York mayor faces a do-or-die challenge in Florida. Only six months ago he was considered unbeatable for the party's nomination.
Thompson's pullout, however, could give a boost to the next-tier candidates fighting for his mantle as the field's most conservative candidate: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.
Copyright AFP 2008