By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 14, 2007
JOHNSTON, Iowa, Dec. 13 -- On a day when her campaign advisers had hoped the final debate before the Iowa caucuses would help Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton reestablish herself as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton offered a formal apology to Sen. Barack Obama and accepted the resignation of a prominent campaign organizer who had raised questions about her rival's use of drugs.
Bill Shaheen, Clinton's New Hampshire co-chair and the husband of former governor Jeanne Shaheen, said in a statement announcing his resignation that his remarks to The Washington Post on Wednesday were "in no way authorized" by the senator from New York or her campaign.
"I made a mistake," Shaheen said, adding that it was a "personal decision" to step aside as co-chairman of Clinton's New Hampshire operation.
Obama advisers were reluctant to let the issue drop, asserting that Shaheen, a close friend of the Clintons, had deliberately put the drug issue into play in the primary in an effort to stem Obama's rise in early-voting states. In his autobiography, the senator from Illinois acknowledged experimenting with marijuana and cocaine in his younger days.
Even after seeking to play down Shaheen's comments, Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, used the word "cocaine" in a television appearance late Thursday. Obama officials seized on it as evidence that the Clinton team was intentionally trying to associate Obama with drug use.
"The issue related to cocaine use is not something the campaign is in any way raising," Penn said on MSNBC's "Hardball."
Still, even as Obama's operatives objected to the remarks, his campaign manager sent out a fundraising appeal urging supporters to show their outrage by contributing to the campaign.
The uproar overshadowed the last Democratic debate before the caucuses. It was held Thursday afternoon under the auspices of the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television.
The debate proved to be a 90-minute respite from the pitched political battle raging here and in New Hampshire. There were no sharp exchanges, only a few gentle jabs. The candidates found general agreement by promising voters that, if elected president, they would end the Iraq war, raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, enact universal health care and curb the use of foreign oil.
The closest any of the front-running candidates came to engaging with one another was when Clinton alluded to her leading rivals in Iowa -- Obama and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- by suggesting that she is better equipped to bring the kind of significant change that many Democratic voters are looking for in a new president.
"Everybody on this stage has an idea about how to get change. Some believe you get change by demanding it; some believe you get it by hoping for it," she said. "I believe you get it by working hard for change. That's what I've done my entire life. That's what I will do as president."
Obama has campaigned consistently on the themes of hope and change, and polls of Iowa voters show that they put a higher priority on a candidate who represents fresh ideas and a new direction rather than someone whose main asset is experience.
The United States can meet its challenges, Obama said, only if "we have the courage to change, if we can bring the country together, if we can push back against the special interests and if we level with the American people about how we're going to solve our problems."
Edwards has also made change a main theme of his candidacy, but he has taken a more pugnacious approach, arguing that the only way to change Washington is by taking the fight to special interests.
"We have a small group of entrenched interests, corporate powers, corporate greed, the most wealthy people in America, who are controlling what's happening in the democracy, and we have to take it back, starting right here in Iowa," Edwards said.
Clinton, Obama and Edwards are in a virtual three-way tie in Iowa, but Thursday's debate gave the other top Democrats -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) -- an opportunity to make their cases to the state's voters on the same stage.
Biden drew one of the toughest questions when he was asked by moderator Carolyn Washburn, the Register editor, about past gaffes of his that suggested racial and ethnic insensitivity.
Biden responded with an impassioned statement, defending his record and commitment on civil rights issues, and saying his political support in Delaware is built on loyalty from minority voters. "My credentials are as good as anyone who's ever run for president of the United States on civil rights," he said.
Obama, who was the subject of one of Biden's gaffes early in the campaign, immediately joined the conversation to defend his Senate colleague and rival. "I have absolutely no doubt about what is in his heart and the commitment that he has made with respect to racial equality in this country," he said.
Dodd, who has struggled along with Biden and Richardson to win more attention, used a moment in the debate to appeal to Iowans not to be swayed by big money or the media. "This isn't about wealth or celebrity," he said. "It's about choosing the best candidate who can win and who will lead our country."
Among the softer questions was the last, in which each candidate was asked to say a few words about the Iowa caucus process. Richardson told Iowans he likes them because they "like underdogs."
"You don't like the national media and the 'smarty-pants' telling you who's going to be the next president," he said.
But the off-camera discussion continued to swirl around Clinton and Obama. Clinton officials said she was personally distressed by the incident and had sought out Obama on the tarmac at Washington's Reagan National Airport before they flew to Iowa for the debate. Though the senators' interactions have been frosty since the start of the campaign nearly a year ago, Clinton wanted, her aides said, to make it clear that she had not approved Shaheen's approach.
Struggling to gain an edge among women in Iowa, Clinton is launching two new advertisements -- one featuring her mother vouching for her, another showing images of her daughter. Chelsea Clinton, 27, joined her mother for the debate, days after making her first appearance on the campaign trail.