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As Candidates Agree, Aides Keep Sparring

By Jonathan Weisman and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

As a controversy over racially charged politics threatened to spin out of control and supporters of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) expressed concern that the ongoing debate would revive old images of a party mired in identity politics and haunt the eventual Democratic nominee in the general election, the candidates inched toward a truce yesterday.

Speaking at a Service Employees International Union event in Manhattan marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Clinton heaped praise on the civil rights leader. In a statement issued later, she said: "We differ on a lot of things. And it is critical to have the right kind of discussion on where we stand. But when it comes to civil rights and our commitment to diversity, when it comes to our heroes -- President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King -- Senator Obama and I are on the same side." Bill Clinton is to appear on Al Sharpton's radio show today to take calls from listeners on civil rights issues.

Campaigning in Reno, Nev., Obama told reporters, "I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. I think that they care about the African American community, they care about all Americans, and they want to see equal rights and equal justice in this country."

But earlier in the day, surrogates for each seemed determined to continue waging the war of words.

"Someone said, 'You can't unring a bell' -- well, the biggest bell in American politics just got rung," said James Carville, a Clinton confidant.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (Mo.), an Obama campaign co-chairman, said yesterday that Clinton was "trying to score cheap political points on the back of Martin Luther King's legacy" when she said that "King's dream became a reality when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964" -- the statement that helped launch the debate over the role of race in the campaign.

Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), a prominent Clinton supporter, raised criticism of Obama to a new level. In an extensive interview, Lewis, a King lieutenant and icon of the civil rights movement, called Obama "a friend" but added: "He is no Martin Luther King Jr. I knew Martin Luther King. I knew Bobby Kennedy. I knew President Kennedy. You need more than speech-making. You need someone who is prepared to provide bold leadership."

Among loyal supporters on both sides, the duel triggered deep concerns about where it will lead. Obama last night joined some of his allies in suggesting that the Clinton campaign is intentionally fueling a discussion of race "to knock us off message," he told NBC News. Her advisers insist that she stumbled into it through a series of tactical responses to Obama, who delivered a speech before the New Hampshire primary in which he invoked both Kennedy and King.

"Instead of the Democratic Party celebrating and wallowing in euphoria over the fact that our party will in all probability nominate a woman or an African American, we have engaged in 'Swift boat' actions that we all say we deplore," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (Mo.), a Clinton supporter, referring to attacks that helped derail Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 White House bid. "The Clintons have been Swift-boated in this thing."

Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), an Obama supporter, said the flap over race is hurting both candidates, potentially narrowing Obama's appeal with white voters and harming Clinton as the nomination fight begins to be waged in the Southeast, where the Democratic electorate is heavily African American. The first test in the region for Democrats will come in South Carolina on Jan. 26.

"We're not going to win on identity politics," Davis said. "Barack Obama is not going to win on identity politics. Hillary Clinton is not going to win on identity politics. The Republican Party is sitting there salivating at the prospects of a battle between white females and blacks."

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.), a Clinton supporter, made a similar appeal for peace and sought a return to a discussion of issues that could draw independent and some Republican support to the eventual nominee: the economy, health care and energy. But both sides acknowledged the momentum of the race debate was becoming difficult to stop.

Clinton advisers said that they were trying to simply undercut Obama on his merits. They added that it is far from certain that racially controversial attacks would work against Obama; if anything, they said, they feared the episode could backfire against them.

Both campaigns agreed they were entering uncharted territory at the presidential campaign level. Carville, a longtime Democratic operative who grew up in the racially charged politics of Louisiana, described the debate as wholly unfamiliar. Other Clinton allies have conveyed similar distress that two champions of civil rights have, in essence, been swept up in allegations of racial insensitivity.

"I'm shaken by the whole thing," Carville said.

The controversy grew from a pair of comments in the run-up to the New Hampshire primary, when Bill Clinton called Obama's claims about his record on Iraq "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," a comment that some black leaders interpreted as belittling Obama, and Hillary Clinton's statement on the roles of King and President Johnson in passing civil rights legislation, which she capped by saying: "It took a president to get it done."

Obama kept the debate alive Sunday when he weighed in for the first time, calling Clinton's comments on King and Johnson "unfortunate" and "ill-advised." But the fight turned toxic after Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, introduced Clinton at a South Carolina event with comments that seemed to both revive the issue of Obama's admitted past drug use and question the authenticity of the candidate's image as a "non-threatening" black man.

On the former issue, Johnson obliquely referenced what "Barack Obama was doing . . . in the neighborhood. I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book." Johnson later backtracked, insisting he was discussing Obama's activities as a community organizer.

Although Clinton officials -- and both Clinton and her husband, repeatedly and publicly -- have said that there is no effort to exploit racial divisions and essentially accused Obama of doing just that, they have not stepped in to sever ties with Johnson.

Clinton surrogates did not defend Johnson's statement, but they roundly ridiculed what they said were conspiracy theories spinning out of the Obama campaign.

"Bill Clinton is a really smart person. Senator Clinton is brilliant. They ain't that clever," Cleaver said.

The people who are injecting race into the campaign are overanalyzing poorly worded statements or meaningless slips, said House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (N.Y.), a Clinton supporter who is African American.

"I'm angry because I'm looking for the white people that are insulting me, and I can't find them," Rangel said.

Staff writers Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin contributed to this report.

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