WASHINGTON - It started with dismissive talk of a fairy tale, then deteriorated into more of a nightmare.
As he campaigns for his wife, Bill Clinton has been taking aim at her rival Barack Obama and the media with increasing rancor, trading the roles of elder statesman and supportive spouse for that of attack dog.
Obama is scrapping, too, going after the former president with increasingly heated criticism, and getting testy with reporters himself at times.
Bill Clinton, campaigning in South Carolina on Wednesday, complained that Obama had put out a "hit job" on him. He didn't explain what that meant.
"Shame on you!" he scolded a reporter who asked about the racial dynamics of the campaign in South Carolina. Clinton himself has repeatedly discussed the racial issue.
Leading Democrats supporting both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama have complained that things have gotten out of hand.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who endorsed Clinton, made a plea for "less acrimony" among the rivals.
Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who backs Obama, called for an end to the "backbiting" and said Clinton's conduct was "not presidential."
By Thursday, it was left to an ordinary voter to call for a time out.
At a morning campaign stop by Bill Clinton just outside Columbia, S.C., a Clinton supporter urged her campaign to "stop taking the bait from Obama" and stick to the issues.
The former president allowed that it was "pretty good advice. It's probably good advice for me, too," he said.
Hillary Clinton found herself defending her husband when she would rather have been talking about her plans for U.S. financial markets.
"We're in a very heated campaign, and people are coming out and saying all kinds of things," she said in an interview with the AP late Wednesday. "I'm out there every day making a positive case for my candidacy. I have a lot of wonderful people, including my husband, who are out there making the case for me."
Obama's wife, Michelle, got her licks in Thursday.
In an e-mail to supporters, she wrote that "another candidate's spouse has been getting an awful lot of attention," and she urged people to make online donations. "We've seen disingenuous attacks and smear tactics turn people off from the political process for too long, and enough is enough," she wrote.
Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton seemed to cool their rhetoric a bit, if not entirely.
Obama told voters in Kingstree, S.C., that criticism directed at him should be taken as "a source of pride. It means I might win this thing."
Still, he repeated that if the Clintons or others "are making false assertions," he won't hesitate to respond aggressively.
Clinton, for his part, said that after "all the mean things" the Obama campaign has said about him, "I should be the last person to defend him. (But) if he wins this nomination, I'm going to do what I can to help him win."
Clinton's full-throated participation in the campaign seems at odds with earlier statements by his wife that, while she is proud of his record and values his advice, this is her show. "I'm going to the people on my own," she said in a September debate.
Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York who has written a book about Bill Clinton, said that while the former president's campaign efforts might have some helpful effects for his wife in the short term, "long term, he's a minus."
All of the attention on him, Renshon said, "subtracts from something very important for Hillary Clinton, which is the idea that she is her own person, able to stand on her own two feet."
"It's another illustration of his own proclivity for putting everything out of center stage except himself, and unfortunately it's his wife who's running for president," Renshon said.
After listening to a speech by the ex-president at historically black Claflin University on Thursday, student Stephanie Jones put it this way: "Bill's trying too hard. It doesn't bother me, but I don't think it helps their campaign."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is neutral in the campaign, said he spoke recently to Bill Clinton about the negative tone of the race.
"It's fair enough to point out the differences in policy, but it is important that the exchanges be of a positive nature and free from distortion and misrepresentation," he said.
Kennedy said he had also spoken with candidates, whom he did not name, about the campaign's rancorous tone and the harm it could pose to Democratic unity.
Obama hasn't hesitated to hit hard at Hillary Clinton. Early on, he served notice that he would "make sure that we take it to them just like they take it to us."
"I come from Chicago politics," he said this month. "We're accustomed to rough and tumble."
Of late, he has repeatedly questioned Hillary Clinton's candor and trustworthiness, including in a radio ad in South Carolina that says, "Hillary Clinton will say anything to get elected."
As for the former president, Obama said this week that Clinton had "taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling."
Renshon said Obama's sharp words serve to undercut his message of hope and change, but also could help to reassure voters he's tough enough to be president.
"People do want to know you have somebody in the White House who can stand the heat," Renshon said.
How did it all come to this?
Surely, part of it is the enormous stress of an unusually long and hard-fought presidential campaign.
Bill Clinton this week clearly was still smarting over months-old barbs from the Obama campaign, and a belief that Obama hasn't been held accountable.
"I never heard a word of public complaint when Mr. Obama said Hillary was not truthful," that she had "no character, was poll-driven," Clinton said. "He had more pollsters than she did. ... When he put out a hit job on me at the same time he called her the senator from Punjab, I never said a word."
The former president was referring to an Obama campaign memo from last summer that criticized Sen. Clinton's ties to India, making reference to her as the "Democrat from Punjab." Obama later said the memo was a mistake. As for Bill Clinton's reference to a "hit job," Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer pointed to documents the Obama campaign had circulated questioning the former president's financial dealings.
The Clintons have survived more campaign rough-and-tumble than most anyone on the modern stage. This is the power couple that a decade ago introduced "vast right-wing conspiracy" to the political dialogue.
Bill Clinton said Thursday that it's a lot harder to hear people criticize his wife than it ever was to be the target himself.
"When I was running, I didn't give a rip what anybody said about me," he told a crowd of about 200 people in Lexington, S.C. "It's weird, you know, but if you love somebody and you think that they'd be good, it's harder."
Jeffrey Goldfarb, a professor of sociology at the New School for Social Research, predicted the former president's harsh words would work against whoever is the Democratic nominee, Clinton or Obama, in the general election campaign.
"Very clearly, he's also undermining his status as a statesman, which can't be good for the Democratic Party," Goldfarb added.
Clinton's words against Obama sharpened when the campaign reached South Carolina, where Democrats vote on Saturday and Obama is leading in the polls. But the trend got its start on the eve of the leadoff New Hampshire primary, when Obama had just won Iowa and the former president accused him of misrepresenting himself on the Iraq war.
"Gimme me a break," Clinton said. "This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale that I have ever seen."
AP writers Mike Baker and Charles Babington contributed to this report.