BAYAMON, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Democratic White House candidates made rare campaign stops in Puerto Rico on Saturday as Hillary Clinton’s uphill challenge to secure the nomination was made even harder by controversy over her references to the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy.
During a one-day stop on the largely Spanish-speaking island, front-runner Barack Obama talked about veterans issues and his Republican rival Sen. John McCain before going on a parade-style walk through San Juan.
In his campaign events Obama made no mention of Clinton’s remarks from Friday when she cited the June 1968 assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy to help explain why she was still in the race for the party’s nomination to contest McCain in the November election.
“My husband (Bill Clinton) did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” she told a South Dakota newspaper’s editorial board.
Clinton’s comments drew a quick rebuke on Friday from Obama’s campaign and she apologized.
Kennedy, brother of slain U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, was assassinated in Los Angeles just after winning the California Democratic primary.
Obama, who has a nearly insurmountable lead in delegates, told a Puerto Rican radio station on Saturday he did not think Clinton intended any offence by her comments.
“I have learned that when you are campaigning for as many months as Senator Clinton and I have been campaigning, sometimes you get careless in terms of the statements that you make and I think that is what happened here,” he said in an interview with Radio Isla Puerto Rico.
There have long been concerns about the safety of Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president. The Illinois senator was given Secret Service protection 18 months before the November election -- earlier than any other candidate has received increased security.
Clinton’s comment brought up the taboo topic of the possibility of a rival’s assassination, and political analysts said the remark was a serious gaffe.
“This is serious. It’s more serious because there were already questions about why Hillary Clinton was still in the race and what she was hoping for,” said Calvin Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
Jillson said the comment indicates that perhaps Clinton is holding out because she thinks some catastrophe might happen.
“What she articulated was the most catastrophic possibility,” he said. Jillson said the reference to Kennedy’s assassination makes the chance of Clinton being asked to be Obama’s vice presidential running mate even more unlikely.
PUERTO RICO’S CLOUT
After six months of contests that began in January, Clinton is lagging Obama but has refused to give up until the last votes are cast and counted.
Clinton made no comments about Friday’s remarks before heading to Puerto Rico. She has one rally on Saturday and events on Sunday in the territory which is enjoying its moment in the political sun because of this year’s prolonged Democratic primary season.
Fifty-five delegates will be up for grabs in Puerto Rico’s June 1 vote, with Clinton favoured to win the bulk of them. The territory cannot vote in the November presidential election.
The state-by-state contests conclude on June 3, when 15 delegates will be awarded in South Dakota and 16 in Montana. Clinton will spend much of the rest of next week campaigning in those two states.
The Democratic nominee will likely be decided by the nearly 800 superdelegates -- members of Congress and other party insiders -- who are free to vote for whomever they want. Most have endorsed Obama.
Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States is the central issue in the island’s politics. Both Clinton and Obama support allowing Puerto Ricans to decide for themselves whether they want to try for statehood or keep their current status.
There are 3.9 million residents on the island, which has a median income half that of the poorest U.S. state, and an almost equal number of Puerto Ricans live on the mainland.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Caren Bohan, writing by Deborah Charles, editing by Jackie Frank)