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It's Never Too Early to Get Defensive

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

At 10:04 yesterday morning, a bulletin crossed the Associated Press wire: "Barack Obama takes the first step in a presidential bid."

Eleven minutes later came a "MEDIA ADVISORY" from the office of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, announcing that she was postponing by a day her much-anticipated remarks about Iraq, which had been scheduled for yesterday afternoon.

Cable news did not see this as a coincidence. "BREAKING NEWS," proclaimed a graphic on MSNBC. "HILLARY CLINTON CANCELS IRAQ NEWSER AFTER OBAMA ANNOUNCEMENT."

"Senator Barack Obama takes the first step toward running for president in 2008, and minutes later a surprise announcement from Senator Hillary Clinton," one of the cable network's anchors reported.

Was the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination preempted by Barack Obama, the party's rising star?

Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines rushed to rein in the speculation. "Congressman McHugh unexpectedly remained in Germany and isn't returning until today, [so] we postponed until tomorrow when all three members could all attend," he wrote in an e-mail.

The Clinton camp's explanation only raised more questions. Among them: Congressman Mc WHO?

That would be John McHugh (R-N.Y.), who with Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) took a weekend trip to Iraq with Clinton. When McHugh delayed his return by a day because of dehydration, Clinton decided to postpone the event -- a decision shared with a few reporters Monday but never publicly announced.

"We knew that yesterday, but didn't have a new time for tomorrow because the members were in the air, and because the Radio & TV Gallery was closed yesterday," Reines continued in his email. "We were only able to lock it in this morning."

And we lost the phone number. And the dog ate my homework. And I think I hear my mom calling.

It was awfully early in a presidential campaign to be getting so defensive -- but such is the tone of the accelerated 2008 race.

The first candidate forums will be next month, the first debates in April, and the Iowa caucuses may arrive with Santa's sleigh in late December. This has sent candidates rushing to announce their exploratory committees or outright candidacies; Clinton herself plans an announcement in the coming days.

The candidates -- announced, unannounced or simply exploring -- are taking shots at each other as if every day is Super Tuesday. In New York on Sunday, Democratic candidate John Edwards took a pop at Clinton -- from a church pulpit, no less. "If you're in Congress and you know this war is going in the wrong direction, it is no longer okay to study your options and keep your own private counsel," he said during a Martin Luther King Day ceremony. "Silence is betrayal."

The New York Daily News ruled that "a clear shot" at Clinton and Obama. The New York Post printed a retaliatory quote from Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson: "In 2004, John Edwards used to constantly brag about running a positive campaign. Today, he has unfortunately chosen to open his campaign with political attacks on Democrats who are fighting the Bush administration's Iraq policy."

This set off a whispered skirmish Tuesday between the two campaigns. The Edwards campaign denied that the barb was directed at Clinton. Clinton aides claimed that Edwards aides told reporters the line was directed at Clinton. Edwards aides denied any such thing.

Perhaps he was targeting Congressman McHugh?

Even before the Edwards shot, Clinton was in a tough spot on Iraq. Alone among the leading Democratic contenders, she has not renounced her October 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq. She has not joined the calls in her party for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, a specific timeline for a pullout, or a partition of the country. And she has been unusually diffident on the subject: The night before her Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on Bush's new Iraq policy last Friday, Clinton decamped -- for Iraq.

That moved Clinton's day of reckoning on Iraq to yesterday, when she was scheduled to face the cameras in the Senate television gallery. Then, yesterday morning, came the Clinton and Obama announcements in rapid succession.

Reporters were skeptical. "I just got word from my producers that Hillary Clinton has canceled her 2 p.m. news conference," one MSNBC anchor reported. "Don't know if that's in relation to the news we got from Barack Obama, but we already see some of the competition heating up." Clinton aides tried to tamp the speculation by circulating a blog item from the New York Times, "Clinton Campaign: Illness, Not Obama, Delayed News Conference." It reported that McHugh "took ill during a stop in Germany and stayed behind to recover."

McHugh, suffering from dehydration, reportedly stumbled in Germany on Monday but quickly recovered. By yesterday, stumbling was confined to the Clinton campaign.

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