For Now, an Unofficial Rivalry

Interactions between potential presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are getting extra attention in the Senate.
Interactions between potential presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are getting extra attention in the Senate. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Charles Babington and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 8, 2006

On Wednesday night, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy hosted the nine Democratic members of his health and education committee at an intimate dinner in his home in Washington's Kalorama neighborhood. The surroundings were stylish, the food home-cooked and tasty.

And then there was the entertainment.

The gathering included a former presidential candidate, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and a close friend of Kennedy's, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. But the star attractions were Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, two junior committee members who may be duking it out for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination in a matter of months.

The air was thick with ambition. "I don't know why we're here, Bernie," Rep. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) quipped to a fellow senator-elect, Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), as the guests walked into the dining room.

Neither Clinton nor Obama has formally declared a candidacy, but their rivalry is already the talk of the chamber, an amusing sideshow for Democrats and Republicans -- at least the handful who aren't weighing their own White House bids.

Kennedy (Mass.) tried not to play favorites on Wednesday, seating the two superstars on his right and left at dinner. But the dais of his committee will be another matter next year, after Obama joins the panel in January: According to seniority rules, the two are likely to be seated next to each other, toward the end. There they will vie for prominence on major issues such as stem cell research, the minimum wage and college tuition subsidies.

In the fishbowl of the Senate, interactions between Clinton and Obama are frequent and closely scrutinized. During a routine vote yesterday morning, Obama and Clinton brushed past each other on the Senate floor. Obama winked and touched Clinton on her elbow. Without pausing, she kept walking.

The 100-member Senate has never run short of presidential wannabes, but this time, Democrats worry that the clash of titans will overshadow their legislative agenda, leaving mere mortals grasping for notice and potentially compromising the party's efforts to expand its Senate majority.

"Everybody's going to be fighting for oxygen at a very high altitude," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Colleagues say Clinton and Obama appear to genuinely admire each other. So far, they claim to see zero evidence of public rancor. "Everybody gets along just fine," Harkin said. Kennedy described the pair as "extra-dimensional individuals" and asserted in an interview: "There's no sort of pettiness or jealousy that I see. They understand the momentous nature of what the search for the presidency is all about."

Behind the scenes, of course, it's a slightly different story. "Don't tell Mama, I'm for Obama" has become the Obama campaign's unofficial motto. It's a reference to Clinton's nickname as first lady and an example of the conflicted loyalties of many Democratic political aides. Some are talking to both camps about possible jobs in the presidential campaigns. Meanwhile, Democratic senators who are not considering presidential bids of their own are remaining neutral.

Some Obama allies suspect that Clinton supporters generated recent rumors that former vice president Al Gore is weighing a 2008 bid, hoping to discourage donors from signing up with Obama just yet. On Monday, Obama tiptoed onto Clinton's turf, traveling to Manhattan to talk with big-time Democratic donors such as George Soros.

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