By Shailagh Murray and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 25, 2008
BEAUFORT, S.C., Jan. 24 -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama stepped back from the brink in their war of words Thursday, with each pulling harsh radio ads from local airwaves and seeking to play down intraparty tensions.
Clinton retreated first. Under fire for airing misleading ads about her main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, her campaign has stopped a radio spot that suggested that Obama (Ill.) was a closet Republican who supported former president Ronald Reagan and the ideas of the 1994 revolt that swept the GOP to control of both chambers of Congress. Obama's campaign counterpunched with a radio ad that pointed out Clinton's early support for the Iraq war and accused her of distorting Obama's words. "She'll say anything and change nothing," the ad said. But by late afternoon, it, too, was off the air.
Even former president Bill Clinton -- the catalyst for much of the heated rhetoric between the two campaigns this week -- toned down his comments in a series of town hall meetings that saw the return of his political alter ego, the policy wonk. At an event Thursday afternoon in Walterboro, he spoke for nearly 90 minutes about the mortgage crisis, education, clean energy, the Iraq war -- just about everything but his wife's chief competitor, who never drew a reference. "I'm just a hired hand here, and I work for nothing," Clinton told the audience as he began a discourse on workers' compensation.
His wife's campaign did not immediately explain why it pulled its radio spot. The ad had received a furious response from the Obama campaign and raised concerns among national Democratic Party elders that the Clinton team's aggressive actions could make it difficult to unify the party behind the eventual nominee.
At issue were comments Obama made in an interview last week in Nevada, when he spoke admiringly of Reagan's political skills and noted that the GOP had been the party of ideas in the 1990s. Both Clintons amplified those comments into a de facto endorsement of Republican social and economic policies, culminating in the South Carolina radio ad.
Returning to South Carolina for the second time since her Nevada victory last Saturday, Clinton (N.Y.) tried to rise above the fray by delivering a speech on the economy that focused on President Bush and what she said was his failure to confront a slipping economy for much of his time in office. Her aides, meanwhile, were busily playing down expectations about how well she will do in Saturday's primary, even though her campaign has invested significant resources in South Carolina and deployed her husband as her barnstorming chief surrogate. She returned to her home state Thursday night to attend two fundraisers.
Obama minimized any tensions arising from the tit-for-tat with the Clintons, telling reporters during a stop in Beaufort that he did not begrudge Bill Clinton his right to be a forceful advocate for his wife. "I don't feel the candidates are being bloodied up," Obama said. "This is good practice for me so, you know, when I take on these Republicans I'll be accustomed to it."
He brushed off concerns about a loss of black voters in the general election should Clinton win the nomination after an ugly primary -- a worry that many others in the party have alluded to. "Black voters shouldn't blame Senator Clinton for running a vigorous campaign against me," he said. "That should be a source of pride. It means I might win this thing. When I was 20 points down, I was a 'person of good character' and my health-care plan was 'universal.' The fact that we've got this fierce contest indicates I'm doing well, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
Obama struck a similar tone when asked about Bill Clinton's role in the campaign. "Let me sort of dispose of the whole issue of President Clinton. I have said this repeatedly. He is entirely justified in wanting to promote his wife's candidacy," Obama said. "I have no problem with that whatsoever. He can be as vigorous an advocate on behalf of her as he would like. The only thing I'm concerned about is when he makes misstatements about my record. That's what I'm seeking to correct."