COLUMBIA, S.C. — Sen. Hillary Clinton charged that Sen. Barack Obama was "looking for a fight" in their Monday night debate as they resumed their war of harsh words Tuesday, while John Edwards insisted that he's the only "grown-up" in the Democratic presidential race.
The Republicans, meanwhile, lost a candidate as former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson dropped out of the race rather than compete at the GOP's next test, the Jan. 29 Florida primary.
His departure, which came in a terse three-sentence statement, was no surprise after he finished a dismal third in Saturday's South Carolina Republican primary. Thompson didn't say if he'd endorse another candidate; he's been close in the past to Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Most of Tuesday's political sizzle came from Democrats. A day after their Myrtle Beach, S.C., debate got personal and often ugly, Clinton began a cross-country campaign trip by flying to Washington, D.C., where she told reporters that Obama was "very frustrated."
After losing Nevada's caucus on Saturday, Clinton said, Obama's advisers "have apparently convinced him to adopt a different strategy. He clearly came — he telegraphed it, he talked about it — he clearly came last night looking for a fight. He was determined and launched right in."
The Illinois senator got in his own jabs during a media conference call, asserting that "it's very clear that Senator Clinton has and President Clinton have been spending the last month attacking me in ways that are not accurate."
Then Obama went on the attack, spicing an economic speech in Greenville, S.C., with barbs at Clinton. The New York senator, Obama said, didn't think that workers or seniors needed immediate tax relief when she unveiled her economic stimulus package on Jan. 11.
"She thought it could wait until things got worse," he said. "Five days later, the economy didn't really change, but the politics apparently did because she changed her plan to look just like mine."
Obama, who offered his plan on Jan. 13, has proposed a $75 billion stimulus plan that includes a $250 "bonus" to seniors in their Social Security checks and a $250 tax rebate. Those figures would double if the economy worsened.
Clinton's original $70 billion blueprint concentrated more on help for energy costs and housing, but included a $40 billion contingency that would provide tax rebates "if economic circumstances continue to worsen."
On Tuesday, though, she seemed to drop the what-ifs, saying, "We need a combination of spending, regulatory action with respect to the housing market and rebates through the tax system."
After her brief media appearance in Washington, Clinton headed to a town hall meeting in Salinas, Calif., then to Arizona, New Mexico and New Jersey, all states that will vote on Feb. 5, when 22 states and American Samoa cast ballots in Democratic contests that might determine the party nominee. Polls show Clinton ahead in the four states she'll visit. She'll return to South Carolina on Thursday for Saturday's Democratic primary.
Clinton rejected the suggestion that she's giving up on South Carolina, where polls show her about 10 points behind Obama, on average. Instead, Bill Clinton stumped for her in the state Tuesday, meeting voters at a diner in Columbia and speaking at rallies in Aiken and Greenville.
The former president focused more on touting his wife's proposals than denigrating her opponents, saying, "Hillary has a great plan to rebuild the middle class and reclaim the future."
But the debate fracas was clearly on the minds of Obama and Edwards.
Edwards tried to paint himself as the statesman, telling supporters in a cold peanut warehouse in Conway, "I was proud to represent the grown-up wing of the Democratic Party last night."
The Seneca, S.C., native and former North Carolina senator called the Obama-Clinton spat "petty, petty bickering" as he talked about his economic plan, which includes creating more jobs involving renewable energy technologies and reducing the number of home foreclosures.
Obama's offensive included the unleashing of a "truth squad" in the state to rebut critics, a group that included former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
"They don't want to see this backbiting, bitter give-and-take that we're beginning to see more and more of, especially from the Clinton campaign," Daschle told reporters in a conference call, as he dismissed Bill Clinton's criticism of Obama as "not presidential ...not in keeping with the image of a former president."
Obama added that Hillary Clinton's charges that he was reluctant to discuss his record, a key point she made in the debate, was not only a calculated strategy, but also what she termed the "fun" part of campaigning.
"And you know, I don't think it's the fun part to fudge the truth," Obama said. "The necessary part of this campaign is to make sure that we're getting accurate information to voters about people's respective records."
Clinton denied that she or her husband was acting in an undignified way. "I can tell you that never crossed our minds," she said.
ON THE WEB
Details of Obama's economic stimulus plan.
Details of Clinton's economic stimulus plan.
(Lightman anchored from Washington and Douglas reported from South Carolina. Matt Stearns and Rob Christensen of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed from South Carolina.)