Clinton struggles to quell Kennedy furore

Hillary Clinton plunged into a full-scale damage limitation effort yesterday, insisting that she was misconstrued when she evoked the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 as a reason for fighting on for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

She portrayed herself as "deeply dismayed and disturbed" by the firestorm generated by her ill-judged remark. "Some took my comments entirely out of context and interpreted them to mean something completely different – and completely unthinkable," she wrote in a front-page commentary in The New York Daily News. "I want to set the record straight: I was making the simple point that given our history, the length of this year's primary contest is nothing unusual."

As she tried to harvest support on the island of Puerto Rico which holds its primary vote on Saturday, Mrs Clinton found herself overwhelmed by a growing swell of media criticism of her RFK remark made during an interview with the editorial board of a newspaper in South Dakota on Friday.

In it, she questioned the pressure being applied to her to bring the marathon nomination contest to an end by surrendering the crown, and therefore the right to run against the Republican John McCain in November, to her rival, Barack Obama. But her mention of the assassination of RFK while he was seeking the Democratic nomination in 1968 triggered charges of poor taste and desperation.

Charles Rangel, the New York congressman and a Clinton supporter, said that she had said "the dumbest thing you could have possibly said". The New York Post, which first broke the story on its website on Friday, splashed the front page of its print editions on Saturday with the headline, "She Said What?"

Her words were clearly poorly chosen for several reasons, not least because the trials and tragedies of the Kennedy clan have been on America's mind since Senator Edward Kennedy was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour last week. Far more troubling, however, was the insinuation seen by some critics of Mrs Clinton that she was persisting just in case the same fate were to meet Mr Obama.

The Illinois senator, who has also been in Puerto Rico, was given an exceptional level of secret service protection early in his campaign because of fears for his safety. Michelle, his wife, once admitted that she was resistant to his running for president because she also worried about him becoming a target. Mrs Clinton's communications chief, Howard Wolfson, also insisted yesterday that she was being unfairly attacked. "She was talking about it in a historical context," he said on CBS. "To claim that she was making any other kind of reference is wrong. And I think some in the news media did overhype this."

The outrage was not universal. Mr Obama himself said Mrs Clinton had made an understandable mistake. "When you are campaigning for as many months as Senator Clinton and I have ...sometimes you get careless," he said. "I think that is what happened here." The son of the murdered Kennedy, Robert Kennedy Jnr, said he had not taken offence.

Stacked against Mrs Clinton is time – after Puerto Rico, the last two states to hold primaries are South Dakota and Montana on 3 June – the delegate count and now her gaffes. Yet, in her newspaper commentary she remained defiant in her pledge to keep going and her belief that, somehow, she can prevail.

Saying her parents did not raise her to "be a quitter" she insisted that she is running "because I believe I'm the strongest candidate to stand toe-to-toe with Senator McCain". She added. "I am not unaware of the challenges or the odds of my securing the nomination – but this race remains extraordinarily close, and hundreds of thousands of people in upcoming primaries are still waiting to vote."

Indeed, her campaign hopes her record of winning broad support from Hispanics will push her past Mr Obama in Puerto Rico. The island is quite unused to the political spotlight. Not a fully-fledged state, its residents do not vote in the presidential election itself, yet it sends 63 delegates to the Democratic convention – more than South Dakota and Montana combined, both of which may tilt to Mr Obama.