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Clintons Move to Ease Some Racial Friction

By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 12, 2008

Former president Bill Clinton worked yesterday to smooth over comments from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign and its allies that have raised hackles in the African American community, a week before Democrats will vote in the South Carolina primary, their first test involving a heavily black electorate.

The comments have come from Clinton (D-N.Y.) and several of her most prominent surrogates, including New Hampshire ally Billy Shaheen, who made insinuations about Sen. Barack Obama's admission of past drug use, and Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, who appeared to dismissively describe the campaign platform of hope and change offered by the strongest black presidential contender in history as the "biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

Publicly, Obama's campaign has so far only echoed the concerns expressed by others, without directly accusing the Clintons of trying to inject race into their primary showdown. But other Democrats have spoken out. "I think it was an unfortunate set of words that really set off a firestorm," said Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000. The remarks by the former president, Brazile said, are particularly troubling.

"It struck us, coming from a president that has stood by and championed so many issues that African Americans cared about -- at first blush it really did hit you the wrong way," Brazile said last night.

Bill Clinton spent much of the day trying to explain his remarks and regain the confidence of a community that historically has provided some of the Clintons' strongest support. In a call-in interview on Al Sharpton's radio show, Clinton said he had meant only that Obama's statements about his position on the Iraq war are a "fairy tale," because Obama (D-Ill.) had voted to fund the war upon arriving in the Senate after saying he opposed the invasion.

In a July 2004 interview with the New York Times, Obama said of the war vote: "What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made."

"I stand by what I said," Bill Clinton said. But, he continued: "I was addressing a specific argument that had never been brought up in the debates." He went on to say that, in 15 debates, Obama has never been asked to explain the comment in which he said he did not know how he would have voted had he actually been in the Senate for the war vote. Obama has otherwise consistently said he would have opposed the war, as he did at the time, when he was running for the Senate.

"So, 'That story is a fairy tale' -- now, that doesn't have anything to do with my respect for him as a person or as a political figure in this campaign," Clinton told Sharpton. "He's put together a great campaign. It's clearly not a fairy tale. It's real."

Acknowledging the closeness of the race after the first two nominating contests, Clinton also said: "I have given hundreds of speeches on Hillary's behalf in this campaign. I don't believe I've given a single one where I did not applaud Senator Obama and his candidacy. It's not a fairy tale: He might win."

A memo surfaced yesterday that listed allegedly racially tinged remarks made by Clinton and her surrogates, including a comment from New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo that Obama would have to do more than "shuck and jive" his way through a news conference to get elected, and remarks that Clinton herself incorporated into her stump speech that some read as a slight on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Obama campaign did not take responsibility for the memo, and campaign officials went to great lengths to avoid the appearance of fanning the flames of the debate. "People have to decide for themselves," Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, said, without specifying what it is people have to decide. "It's not our focus."

In a statement issued yesterday evening, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, an African American representing South Carolina, said: "I encourage the candidates to be sensitive about the words they use. This is an historic race for America to have such strong, diverse candidates vying for the Democratic nomination."

One Clinton supporter suggested that Obama is trying to use allegations of racism to help boost his campaign after narrowly losing the New Hampshire primary to Clinton. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), a Clinton supporter, described the Obama allegation as "a tactic to diminish their support in the African American community."

The Obama campaign's goal, she said, is to "nick at you and come up with something that may well stick."

"And I personally was offended that they would think the African American community is going to be blinded by their allegations," she said.

For months, African American voters have struggled to pick sides between the wife of a beloved former president and the first black candidate with a realistic shot at winning the White House. Now, as the South Carolina contest approaches, and as primaries in other states with large black populations loom on Feb. 5, when 22 states will vote, Obama may be narrowing the edge Clinton once held among black voters.

A new survey by the polling arm of the Alabama Education Association, the Capital Survey Research Center, shows Obama gaining ground on Clinton in Alabama, a Feb. 5 state where blacks are expected to make up more than a third of Democratic primary voters. The two are locked in a statistical dead heat, with Obama at 36 percent and Clinton at 34 percent. Last month, the same poll showed Clinton leading Obama, 40 percent to 25 percent.

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