Bill Clinton Stumps at Area Churches

Former President Bill Clinton talks with the Post's Hamil Harris about the tone of the campaign and the impact of Sen. Obama. Clinton's comments came after he stumped for his wife Sunday at the Temple of Praise in Southeast Washington. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

Former president Bill Clinton said yesterday that he understood the "immense pride" that has propelled black voters to the polls for Sen. Barack Obama, but he thinks his wife would be a better choice for president.

Clinton also said he was glad that the contest between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Obama (Ill.) for the Democratic nomination had taken on a less hostile tone because the party needs to be united for the general election.

"I thought the best thing that has happened in recent weeks was the debate that Hillary and Senator Obama had in Los Angeles. They were able to respectively explore their differences and questions about each other's record," Clinton said in an interview after campaigning for his wife at a church in Southeast Washington. "They had disagreements, but they were respectful and honorable of each other, and they even left open the door that they might run together."

The former president's comments came after he addressed more than 2,000 churchgoers at the Temple of Praise in Southeast Washington. He also visited Greater Mount Nebo AME Church in Bowie, while his wife campaigned elsewhere in Maryland and Virginia yesterday.

Although Bishop Glen A. Staples and his 10,000-member flock at Temple of Praise are accustomed to high-octane services filled with singing and clapping, the mood was subdued as Clinton made the case for his wife.

"Raise your hands if you know someone without health insurance," said Clinton, whose question prompted most of the people in the church's main sanctuary to raise their hands.

At no time during his speech did Clinton criticize Obama. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to be nice. He and his wife sparked racial tension with some comments that angered many African American voters in the days leading up to last month's South Carolina primary.

Clinton's biggest applause came after he said that it was "long past the time for the District of Columbia to be vote-empowered. That is a big, big issue, to be disempowered. That is wrong." He was joined at the church by Zina Pierre, a White House adviser during his presidency, former transportation secretary Rodney E. Slater and former Prince George's county executive Wayne K. Curry.

In an interview after the service, Clinton acknowledged that the race has tightened, and although it is important for his wife to fight for the nomination, it is also necessary not to turn off black voters.

"In a larger sense, when this nomination process is over, which may not happen until after the Pennsylvania primary in April, we have to hold our party together, and whoever ends up winning, we need to all have reached out to each other."

In debates and interviews, Clinton and Obama have demurred when asked if they would consider running on the same ticket. "Well, that is for them to talk about. None of the rest of us should say anything, and neither one of them should be thinking about it right now until they figure out who is going to win," Bill Clinton said yesterday.

He again said his comments had been taken out of context in the furor surrounding the South Carolina primary. Clinton was accused of trying to diminish Obama's landslide victory in the Palmetto State, where blacks make up more than half of the Democratic voters, by noting that Jesse Jackson had also won that primary in 1984 and 1988.

"The stories coming out of South Carolina were just not so," Clinton said. "I didn't say anything negative about Senator Obama. . . . But the main thing is, I understand the immense pride that he has generated in the African American community.

"I mean, they have been voting for white candidates a long time, and they got him, and they are proud of him and a lot of people will support him," he said. "All that I can do is go and say why I think that Hillary will be a better president."

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