CHICAGO - Democrats in Wisconsin and Hawaii had their say Tuesday in a hard-fought presidential campaign that has grown increasingly negative with charges of broken promises, plagiarism and petty partisanship.
Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York criticized each other as they looked to break out of a tight race, fearing the prospect that neither one will secure the nomination before the convention this summer.
They entered Tuesday's contests closely divided in the hunt for the 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination: 1,281 for Obama and 1,218 for Clinton.
The day's biggest prize was Wisconsin, where 74 delegates were up for grabs and polls showed the two in a statistical dead heat. Neither candidate made the long trip to campaign in Hawaii, where 20 delegates were to be decided by a caucus.
Obama, born in Hawaii and living in Wisconsin's southern neighbor, hoped to build on his string of eight straight wins. Clinton's campaign played down her chances in Wisconsin, but was hoping to beat expectations to give her struggling candidacy new life.
With blue-collar workers in the industrial Midwest up for grabs, both candidates focused their barbs on economic issues. Clinton's campaign sent a mailer to Wisconsin voters saying Obama's health care plan would leave 15 million uninsured, while Obama blamed Clinton's "hollering at Republicans and engaging in petty partisan politics" for the failure of the health care initiative she spearheaded in her husband's administration.
Republican front-runner John McCain, meanwhile, hoped to move closer to locking up the nomination with voting in Wisconsin and Washington state, where 56 delegates were at stake. The Arizona senator began the day with 908 delegates, while his closest rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, had 245. Texas Rep. Ron Paul had 14.
Clinton's staff tried to raise doubts about Obama's credibility, pointing out that he has hedged on a pledge to limit himself to public financing in the general election and accusing him of plagiarism for using lines first spoken by his friend Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
"If you ask voters to judge you on the basis of promises and you break them, or on the basis of rhetoric and you lift it, there's not much else there," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson told reporters.
"If your whole candidacy is about words, those words should be your own," Clinton told reporters Monday evening. "That's what I think." She had not commented directly on the plagiarism assertion earlier in the day, but characterized Obama as all talk with little action and said voters have a choice between "speeches or solutions."
Obama shrugged off the criticism of his speeches, saying Clinton has used his lines, too.
Patrick is a close friend of Obama and has campaigned for him.
"I am neither surprised nor troubled that he used the words that I asked him to use of my own," Patrick said in an interview Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America." "I think it's a sad comment on the state of the race and the state of our politics that the Clinton campaign is taking this particular tact."
Obama hit back Monday in Youngstown, Ohio, turning Clinton's criticism of his oratory into a biting critique of her past support of trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"She says speeches don't put food on the table. You know what? NAFTA didn't put food on the table, either," Obama said, bringing the Rust Belt crowd to its feet.
While Obama spent most of the last week in Wisconsin, Clinton split her time there and the March 4 contests in Ohio and Texas.
But she invested in television ads in Wisconsin that criticized Obama for refusing to debate her in the state. He aired a response ad accusing her of "the same old politics" of phony attacks, noting the 18 debates they've already had and two more later this week and next.