Jan. 24, 2008 -- When a South Carolina voter asked Bill Clinton about his wife's six-year stint on Wal-Mart's board of directors, the former president appeared primed and ready Thursday, ticking off a list of reasons why "it was the right thing for her to do."
The Obama campaign pounced on the former president's comments, acknowledging it is delighted Clinton's past work with Wal-Mart is becoming an issue in the campaign.
"If they want to defend her service to one of the least environmentally-friendly, least labor-union friendly companies in the country, they're welcome to do that," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton told ABC News.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., served on the board of the Arkansas-based company from 1986 to 1992 while her husband was governor of the state -- something the senator's chief rival. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., pointed out during Monday's combative debate in South Carolina.
After getting a question from a voter during a campaign event, Bill Clinton suggested she helped the company become more environmentally-friendly and buy more American products.
"When she was asked to go on the board of Wal-Mart, they had no women in positions of management, and they had no environmental profile," he said during a campaign event in Lexington, S.C., Thursday. "And she was asked if she would serve and try to help them become more environmentally sensitive, and she agreed to do it."
Clinton and Wal-Mart
The former president then went one step further, defending Wal-Mart's record on the environment.
"Even Wal-Mart's strongest critics agree that it's one of the leading forces for trying to help make America more economically independent on the energy front," he said, pointing to the company's sales of energy-efficient light bulbs and its effort this year to reduce packaging by 5 percent.
Clinton also suggested he and his wife both helped to develop a "Buy America" program at Wal-Mart.
"For the time when I was governor and she was on the board, as compared with, let's say, K-Mart, Wal-Mart bought 10 percent more of its products manufactured in America," he said.
"So, yes, she served on the board, and, yes, I think it was the right thing to do under the circumstances of the time, the 1980s," Clinton said.
However, critics of Wal-Mart argue the former president's assessment is inaccurate.
"We respectfully disagree with former President Clinton's characterization of Wal-Mart as a benign, benevolent corporation striving for self-improvement either during Sen. Clinton's tenure on the board or at present," said David Nassar, executive director of Wal-Mart Watch, a union-financed group.
"While we don't have any insight into what Sen. Clinton advocated for while on the board of Wal-Mart, we do know that Wal-Mart has made no meaningful progress regarding the company's poor business practices, including gender discrimination, low wages, inadequate health care, overseas sourcing or environmental degradation," Nassar said.
'No Changes for the Better'
With animosity intensifying between the two leading Democratic contenders, the Obama campaign has been highlighting her work with Wal-Mart.
Obama has suggested Clinton was on the board of Wal-Mart as a "corporate lawyer" while he was working on "the streets" as a Chicago community organizer.
"Ronald Reagan was a transformative public figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to, because while I was working on those streets, watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart," Obama said Monday, in their latest debate.
This week the Obama campaign sent reporters opposition research suggesting that Clinton's "pro-free trade stance [is] linked to Wal-Mart's China imports" and posted a "factcheck" to it's website about Clinton and Wal-Mart.
"Wal-Mart indulged in unfettered trade with China: forced labor goods, garments improperly labeled 'Made In USA,' smuggled goods that violate import quotas with China and even child labor products," reads Obama campaign material sent to reporters this week.
"All I know from her tenure on the board of Wal-Mart is what's been reported. That she didn't rock the boat, there were no changes for the better for women while she was there, and she didn't object to Wal-Mart's policies on labor unions," Burton said.
"I think that as the facts become apparent on her time on the board, and their time on the board, it gives voters a good look at her record and what she's done on these issues."
The Clinton campaign responded Thursday, pointing to Obama's past ties to indicted Chicago developer Tony Rezko.
"The Obama campaign should be careful about throwing stones from their Rezko-built glass house," said Clinton spokesman Jay Carson.
ABC News' Sunlen Miller and Eloise Harper contributed to this report.