WASHINGTON — Top aides to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama exchanged heated words Monday after a Web site ran a 2006 photo of Obama in traditional African dress and reported that Clinton's campaign had circulated the picture.
The photo flap comes as Clinton sharpens her rhetorical attacks on Obama with one week left before potentially make-or-break primaries in Texas and Ohio.
The photo, which appeared on The Drudge Report, shows Obama wearing a white turban and a wraparound white robe given to him by a tribal elder during a 2006 visit to northeastern Kenya, his father's homeland.
An article accompanying the photo said that "Clinton staffers" circulated the photo. The photo could be interpreted as suggestive of Muslim garb, and Obama has been nagged by erroneous rumors that he is or once was a Muslim. He is a Christian.
Obama campaign officials quickly denounced the Clinton camp's alleged role in circulating the photo.
"On the very day that Senator Clinton is giving a speech about restoring respect for America in the world, her campaign has engaged in the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we've seen from either party in the election," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said.
Clinton campaign officials didn't confirm or deny that they passed around the photo; instead, they tried to turn the tables on the Obama camp by saying its indignation over the photo's publication is itself an effort to divide and distract voters.
"Hillary Clinton has worn traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely," Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a written statement. "This is nothing more than an obvious and transparent attempt to distract from the serious issues confronting our country today and to attempt to create the very divisions they claim they decry."
Political analysts say the barbs from both camps are to be expected at this stage of the campaign because their rivalry is so close leading into big-state primaries in Ohio and Texas on March 4 and Pennsylvania on April 22.
"Both sides are pulling out all the stops, and the stops are emotional," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Hillary is trying to energize her people with outrage, and Obama is conveying that his supporters should be outraged by Clinton's tactics. When voters are outraged, they tend to show up in large numbers, so you never want to be out-outraged."
Williams' comments were the Clinton campaign's latest poke at Obama. Over the weekend, Clinton angrily accused Obama's campaign of distributing fliers in Ohio that allegedly distorted her opinion of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
She generally praised NAFTA during the '90s, after her husband won its enactment, but has criticized portions of it more recently. She now calls for a moratorium on such treaties while a review determines which trade terms work best.
"Shame on you, Barack Obama!" Clinton said, waving the offending flier.
Then, at a Sunday rally, she sarcastically dismissed Obama's assertion that he can preside over a hopeful bipartisan government.
"I could stand here and say, 'Let's just get everybody together. Let's get unified. The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect,'" Clinton said in Providence, R.I. "Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear."