By Bill Turque and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 8, 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, making her first appearance in Virginia yesterday before Tuesday's regional primary, matched herself up not with opponent Sen. Barack Obama, but Sen. John McCain, who is on the verge of the Republican presidential nomination.
Speaking to about 2,000 students and supporters in the gym at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County, Clinton mentioned her Democratic opponent from Illinois only once. She said that it appeared McCain, who benefited from the withdrawal yesterday of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, had sewn up the race.
As Virginia Democrats choose between Clinton and Obama on Tuesday, their decision could hinge in part on whom they see as the candidate most able to beat front-runner McCain in November. Clinton appeared to have this in mind yesterday as she took on McCain.
Although Clinton called her Senate colleague from Arizona "a friend of mine," she said McCain offered little in the way of change.
"I believe he offers more of the same," Clinton said.
She cited McCain's prediction that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for as long as 100 years and said that if elected, she would commission a plan for withdrawing U.S. forces within 60 days.
"Senator McCain has said, well, he doesn't know much about the economy and has the same policies that haven't worked for the last 10 years," Clinton said.
Her sole mention of Obama came regarding health care, renewing her contention that unlike his blueprint, her plan would guarantee health coverage for all Americans.
She was greeted warmly by the crowd. Many people had waited as long as three hours in the bleachers for the New York Democrat, who was running behind schedule. Her national campaign headquarters are in Arlington.
Washington-Lee students got no time off from class for Clinton's visit -- it was only a half-day because of teacher training -- but they were still enthusiastic.
"I like her health-care plan the best," said Phillip North, 16, a sophomore. "My mom likes Obama. She thinks he's intelligent."
The former first lady also drew a heavy contingent of women 45 and older, a segment of voters that has helped buoy her bid for her party's nomination.
Nancy Barr, 67, a retired lawyer from Potomac, said Clinton, 60, is the best hope for the country because she is a seasoned public servant.
Of Obama, who is 46, she said: "He's the age of my son-in-law. I wouldn't turn the world over to my son-in-law at that age."
Bonnie Baier, 66, a retired Fairfax County schoolteacher, said she is a registered Republican but had come to Clinton because of her opposition to the war. She said she wasn't concerned about Clinton's Senate vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq and thought she had been misled by the White House.
"I think she felt it was the right thing to do at the time," said Baier, a 1959 Washington-Lee graduate who remembers decorating the gym for dances.
Clinton will also campaign in Washington state and Maine before returning for the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner tomorrow in Richmond. Obama is also scheduled to attend the Richmond dinner and will campaign in Virginia on Sunday and Monday, when he plans an appearance at the University of Maryland.
Clinton and her supporters "clearly see Virginia as a must-win for their campaign. We think it is going to be a very competitive race," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said.
The Obama campaign sent several surrogates into the area yesterday, including Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy's longtime confidant and speechwriter, who told an audience at the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring that Obama shares Kennedy's sound judgment, peaceful bent and challenge of overcoming discrimination.
"I sometimes feel like saying to Obama, 'You're not the black candidate for president, you're the best-qualified candidate for president who happened to be born black,' " Sorensen, 79, told about 75 senior citizens who live Leisure World, one of the most politically active communities in Maryland. "I'm also a Democrat who's tired of losing, and I think in Barack Obama, we have a candidate who can win."
Sorensen said after his address that Obama "is more like John F. Kennedy than any other candidate in these last 40 years."
In Arlington, Clinton ticked through her policy prescriptions, including relief for struggling homeowners and students seeking low-cost loans. She promised a renewed effort to pursue alternative sources of energy, noting that Germany "had placed a big bet" on solar energy.
"The last time I looked," she said, "Virginia had more sunny days than Germany."
School and campaign staff tried to keep the crowd's spirits up as Clinton's arrival time began to slide. Clinton staff passed the word that the campaign would cover any overtime expenses for bus drivers waiting to take students home.
One young volunteer launched T-shirts into the audience and led people in a round of Clinton trivia ("Who can tell me Hillary Clinton's home town?")
Washington-Lee Principal Gregg Robertson saw the opportunity for a teaching moment, more or less.
"All politicians run a little late," he said. "Let's at least hope that she's not as late as her husband used to be."
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report from Richmond.