Clinton planning exit as Obama and McCain look ahead

Hillary Clinton could step out of the US presidential race Friday, leaving Democratic candidate Barack Obama to focus on a general election fight with Republican John McCain that is already in full swing, US media reported Wednesday.

Obama, 46, clinched the Democratic Party's nomination for president on Tuesday, becoming the first African American to get the nod of a major US political party, but Clinton has yet to formally concede the race.

Broadcaster ABC reported the former first lady held a conference call with members of Congress and Democratic officials in which she discussed leaving the race, and cited party sources as saying Clinton would exit by Friday at the latest.

Speculation swirled Wednesday over whether Obama would choose his long-time rival Clinton for the number two spot, forming what many pundits have dubbed a "dream ticket" that could lead to the first black president and first female vice president.

Media reports have indicated that Clinton would be open to the possibility. Clinton even hinted at her need to have input into the choice, saying Tuesday night she wanted "the nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard and no longer to be invisible."

But it remains unclear what Obama - a first-term senator of Illinois - would think of such a deal or how it would be received by voters.

Clinton provoked Obama supporters by continuing to play up her superior White House credentials and refusing to concede Tuesday night, even though he had reached the necessary delegate count to officially clinch the nomination.

Tributes to Obama's unlikely accomplishment poured in Wednesday from many African Americans, who welcomed his victory as a sign of how far the country has come since the civil rights battles of the 1960s.

"I think that what were seeing is an extraordinary expression of the fact that 'we the people' is beginning to mean all of us," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the first female African- American to become the top US diplomat.

McCain meanwhile took aim at Obama for foreign policy weaknesses and challenged Obama to a 10-debate series beginning June 12.

McCain, 71, a senator from Arizona, made the public overture at a news conference in the southern state of Louisiana and in an official letter sent to the Obama campaign.

He called for open town hall-type meetings that would allow questions from audiences ranging from 200 to 400 people.

Obama's campaign campaign manager David Plouffe said in an e- mailed response that the idea was appealing and was "one of many items" on the candidate's agenda in the coming days, Bloomberg financial news service reported.

McCain again went after Obama for his pledge to meet with the leaders of US foes such as Iran, Cuba and North Korea.

"It shows a naivete and a lack of experience that Americans will make a judgment about," McCain told reporters.

Obama defended his assertion before the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), pledging tough carrot-and-stick diplomacy against Iran in order to defend Israeli and US interests.

Obama said he wanted to correct misunderstandings that he would be soft on Iran, and threatened consequences if Iran refuses to stop nuclear development, stop supporting terrorism in the region and above all, stop threatening Israel.

But Obama also caused a stir by touting Jerusalem as the "undivided" capital of Israel, going further than the current administration of President George W Bush, which has said the decision on Jerusalem's final status is up to the Palestinians and Israelis themselves.

"Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," Obama said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas criticized the remarks, saying there would be no peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict without a resolution for Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital, dpa reported.

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