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OBAMA SAYS NEXT PRESIDENT NEEDS TO UNITE NATION

In a slap at his chief rival, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Thursday the most important asset the next president can offer is the ability to unite the country.

The Illinois senator did not mention Hillary Rodham Clinton but sought to make the case that the United States cannot afford a divisive commander in chief after President Bush's two terms.

"The reason that this president has failed to lead this country is because he hasn't been able to unite our country. He's polarized us when he should have pulled us together," Obama said in a speech at the College Democrats of America convention at the University of South Carolina. "That's why the experience we need in the next president is the ability to bring this country together. It's not enough to just change parties," Obama said.

Despite being viewed unfavorably by nearly half of the public, Clinton is ahead of Obama in national and most state polls in the Democratic primary race.

The New York senator's campaign contended that Obama, with his remarks, had broken a pledge "to elevate our political discourse."

In South Carolina and during a visit to New Hampshire earlier in the day, Obama compared Clinton to Bush because, he said, she has said she will not have unconditional meetings with foreign enemies.

He told the College Democrats that her approach showed "stubbornness."

Letter from Gates seeks to calm feud

Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton that a top Pentagon official did not intend to impugn her patriotism by suggesting her questions about U.S. planning in Iraq boosts enemy propaganda.

At the same time, Gates defended his aide and the author of the letter, Undersecretary for Policy Eric Edelman, calling him "a valued member" who provides "wise counsel and years of experience (that) are critically important to the many pressing policy issues facing the military."

Late Thursday, lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee were told they would get the briefing Clinton had been seeking for months on the issue of troop withdrawal.

Dodd proposes universal health plan

Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd proposed a universal health coverage plan Thursday with benefits matching those given to federal workers.

The plan would be phased in over four years and would create an insurance package offered to businesses and individuals with premiums based on their ability to pay. The proposal calls for a Universal HealthMart, parallel to the health coverage given federal workers. The system would offer a variety of plans tailored to individual needs.

In background documents spelling out his plan, the Connecticut senator said it would not require higher taxes but would be financed primarily by eliminating inefficiencies in the current system. Both employers and individuals would contribute to premiums, with the amount tied to the ability to pay.

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