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Hillary, Obama hit each other in attack ads

Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were bashing one another with the most negative attacks of the primary season, bidding for undecided voters in Tuesday's critical Pennsylvania primary.

The former first lady gained the endorsement of a Pittsburgh newspaper whose owner funded probes that led to her husband's impeachment a decade ago.

With just 10 pre-convention contests remaining after Pennsylvania, it appeared mathematically impossible for either candidate to gather the 2,025 delegates needed for nomination going into the party convention in August. That leaves the nomination in the hands of so-called superdelegates, the nearly 800 party officials who can vote for either candidate regardless of state primary or caucus results.

The battle for Pennsylvania has turned particularly nasty as Clinton, who initially was expected to win easily and by a large margin, has seen her lead shrink in state polls. Obama _ who is the clear front-runner for the nomination _ is fighting equally hard to keep his expected loss as narrow as possible, hoping to diminish Clinton's argument to the superdelegates that she has unstoppable momentum.

She goes into the Pennsylvania primary having most recently won the delegate-heavy states of Texas and Ohio, but Obama leads nationwide in delegates selected in primary elections and state caucuses, in the popular vote and the number of pre-convention state contests won.

Overall, including the nearly 500 superdelegates who have committed to one of the Democrats, Obama leads 1,646 to 1,508. On Sunday, Clinton's campaign was bristling over new Obama TV ads that claimed the New York senator's health care plan would force Americans to buy into the program even if they couldn't afford it. Obama also was striking out at Clinton, charging her with having cozy links to lobbyists _ that in response to her campaign claims that he was taking money from special interest groups.

In a development that would have seemed impossible as the campaign opened, Clinton won the backing of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and its owner and publisher, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.

In the 1990s, he spent $2.3 million (euro1.46 million) to fund a series of articles by The American Spectator magazine that dug into Bill Clinton's behavior as governor of Arkansas. The magazine reported that Clinton had asked state troopers to help procure women for him and that he had sexually harassed a state worker named Paula Jones. Jones's legal case against Clinton helped launch an independent counsel investigation that eventually exposed his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Hillary Clinton famously defended her husband at the time, saying the allegations were part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy'' heavily funded by Scaife. Clinton was impeached in the House of Representatives, but the Senate failed to convict him on charges brought by the Republican-dominated lower house.

Candidate Clinton met with the Tribune-Review's editorial board, including Scaife, last month. Afterward, Scaife wrote an editorial titled "Hillary, Reassessed,'' telling his readers he was impressed by the former first lady.

The Pennsylvania vote will divvy up 158 delegates to the August Democratic national convention, but the party's rules for apportioning those delegates mean that even a big victory will likely do little to close Obama's overall lead.

Geoff Garin, Clinton's new top strategist, faced David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, Sunday with each accusing the other of negative campaigning. But the one word that was not heard, as it usually is from Clinton campaign officials, was August.

In the past Clinton has vowed to fight for the nomination right to the convention late that month.

When asked on NBC television's "Meet the Press'' if Clinton might drop out if she turns in poor showings in the June 3 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, even if she wins in Pennsylvania, Garin said: "I would advise people to wait until June 3 when this process is played through, see how close, how close it is, how well the candidates are doing, how they're conducting themselves.''

Garin did not once repeat Clinton's determination to continue the struggle into the convention.

Also Sunday, Obama, who often argues that John McCain is the same as President George W. Bush, said the Republican presidential candidate would be better for the country than Bush had been.

"You have a real choice in this election. Either Democrat would be better than John McCain,'' Obama said to cheers from a rowdy crowd at Reading High School in central Pennsylvania. Then he said: "And all three of us would be better than George Bush.''

The comment threatened to undercut Obama's efforts _ and those of the entire Democratic Party _ to portray McCain as offering nothing more than an extension of Bush's unpopular tenure. At the very least, it provided fodder that Republicans can exploit in the general election.

Earlier, Obama renewed his criticism that McCain offers the same "failed'' policies of the Bush administration on everything from Iraq to the economy.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds responded: "The remark underscores that John McCain has the strength to change America and move this nation forward. Barack Obama is a new face who represents old ideas.''

Obama spokesman Bill Burton shot back: "It's hard to imagine a president doing a worse job than President Bush but one thing is clear, John McCain wants to do his best to emulate Bush's failed economic and foreign policies and even his divisive political tactics.''

McCain, who has benefited from the acrimony generated between Clinton and Obama, reasserted his determination not to repeal tax cuts pushed through by the Bush administration. He also promised to assemble a "league of democracies'' to work against Iran's perceived efforts to build a nuclear weapon.

"I've already had conversations with (French) President (Nicolas) Sarkozy. Just recently, again, I had conversations with (British) Prime Minister (Gordon) Brown. We could get together a league of democracies.

We could impact the Iranians in a very significant way,'' McCain said on ABC's "This Week.''

McCain has said he would not rule out using American military force against Iran should it be on the verge of gaining a nuclear weapon and if all other efforts to deter Tehran had failed.

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