Democratic presidential candidates should stop their bitter sniping and get back to issues that matter to South Carolina and the country, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Wednesday.

"Sometimes campaigns get tense. People start picking around the edges for advantage," Jackson said in a phone interview.

Comments by leading Democratic contenders U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois have been misconstrued to fuel false controversy that could divide the party as it heads into South Carolina's critical Democratic primary on Jan. 26, Jackson said.

"What a great moment to move the debates from a racial battleground to an economic common ground and a moral higher ground," he said.

Clinton was right when she said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jackson said. "It took somebody in the White House with the power and will and determination to turn demonstration into legislation. Dr. King was standing right by Johnson's side. They were a team," he said.

When Obama said that Clinton was "likeable enough," it was not a gender insult. It was a gentle compliment, Jackson said.

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Competition between candidates is good, but bitterness divides the party, Jackson said. Democrats must unite to field the best candidate for the challenge they face from Republicans in November, he said. "There shouldn't be so much bloodletting now," Jackson said.

Real issues that matter, such as the subprime loan crisis and foreclosures, toxic waste, education, immigration and health care, should be the focus of the Democratic debate, not personal attacks based on race or gender, he said.

"Let South Carolina put its best face and best foot forward," Jackson said. "The issues that heal South Carolina will heal the nation."