By Matthew Mosk and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Aides to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) accused Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) yesterday of plagiarizing portions of a recent speech and continued to question his vows to reform the campaign finance system as Clinton sought to drive home the idea that her Democratic rival's presidential bid is built on style more than substance.
The two-pronged attack came as Clinton attempts to slow Obama's momentum in today's contests in Wisconsin, which neighbors his home state of Illinois, and in Hawaii, where he was born.
The race in Wisconsin, where Clinton dug in over the weekend in an effort to break a string of eight straight primary and caucus defeats, has turned increasingly negative. Just days ago, Clinton aides accused Obama of breaking his pledge to accept public financing in place of private donations during the general election. Obama's aides say he did not make a firm commitment to accept public financing if he won the nomination.
Yesterday, key Clinton supporters accused Obama of "lifting" a passage of the rousing speech he delivered to a party gathering in Milwaukee on Saturday night from Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick, a longtime friend and supporter. Side-by-side YouTube videos distributed to reporters by the Clinton campaign show Obama repeating, almost verbatim, lines from a speech Patrick gave two years earlier.
"The point we're making overall is that Senator Obama's record as a senator and as a public official is thin," said Howard Wolfson, a senior Clinton adviser. "If you're asking an electorate to judge you on your promises and you break them, and on your rhetoric and you lift it, there are fundamental problems with your campaign."
Answering a reporter's question in Niles, Ohio, Obama said he does not think using Patrick's words was "too big a deal."
"Well, look, I was on the stump. He had suggested we use these lines. I thought they were good lines," Obama said when asked why he did not credit Patrick. "I'm sure I should have. Didn't this time."
Obama returned to Wolfson's assertion while speaking with reporters on his campaign plane: "The notion that using a line from one of my national campaign co-chairs . . . is somehow objectionable, somehow doesn't make sense."
Obama's aides also called Clinton's criticism of his public financing plans "curious." They noted that she was the first candidate in the 2008 field to announce plans to reject the public financing system, saying more than a year ago that she would try to use private contributions to finance a general election bid if she were the party's nominee.
"We're just not going to be lectured on this," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.
Obama first raised the notion of accepting public funds in the general election a year ago, when he sought a ruling from the Federal Election Commission that would preserve that option for him. He said then that if the GOP nominee entered the system -- in which the candidate accepts $85 million to fund a general election campaign and agrees to raise no other money -- he would also enter it.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who is moving ever closer to accumulating the delegates he need for the GOP nomination, reaffirmed last week that he would be willing to accept that deal and urged Obama to "keep his word" on the issue.
Longtime advocates of campaign finance reform sent Obama a letter last week expressing "deep concern" that he would back away from the financing system. At the same time, several left-wing blogs urged Obama to "break the pledge," arguing that he should do nothing to cede the fundraising advantage that Democrats appear to have gained heading into the general election.
The candidate's advisers said yesterday that his pledge came before anyone realized how explosive his fundraising effort would become. Reports due to the FEC this week will show that Obama raised $32 million in January, almost triple what Clinton raised. Nearly all of Obama's total came via the Internet.
"The outpouring from small donors has been unprecedented and perhaps unexpected, and I would not want to do anything to deny those donors the chance to participate [in the general election], regardless of who the Democratic nominee is," said Alan D. Solomont, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who is a member of Obama's national finance team. "To be blunt, the ability of Democrats to raise money from both small donors and others is a significant competitive advantage."
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said yesterday that he considers the entire discussion premature, given the tough, unresolved battle for the party's nomination.
To both campaigns, the race in Wisconsin has emerged as a critical steppingstone to the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas, as well as a fight for the state's 74 pledged delegates.
As Clinton crisscrossed Wisconsin yesterday, she returned to what has become a central theme of her retooled, sharper-edged campaign, saying at one point: : "There's a difference between speeches and solutions, between talk and action."
Speaking to reporters last night, Clinton was asked about her campaign's accusation of plagiarism against Obama. She said she had no idea what impact it will have on Tuesday's vote. "I leave that to all of you to figure out," she said, then added: "Facts are important. I'm a facts person. If your whole candidacy is based on words, it should be your own words."
Obama had borrowed Patrick's turn of phrase during the speech in Milwaukee. "Don't tell me words don't matter," he said. " 'I have a dream.' Just words? 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' Just words? 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words? Just speeches?"
Patrick used a nearly identical formulation during his 2006 campaign for governor, when he was drawing fire from his Republican opponent, who said his stylish speechmaking disguised a lack of substance.
At a titanium plant in Niles, Obama also noted that Clinton seemed to borrow lines from him, including his signature rallying cry "Fired up! Ready to go!"
That does not mean her seriousness should be questioned, Obama said.
"When Senator Clinton says, 'it's time to turn the page' in one of her stump speeches or says she's 'fired up and ready to go,' " Obama said, "I don't think that suggests that she's not focused on the issues she's focused on."
Obama beat Clinton to Wisconsin, arriving last Tuesday to celebrate his victories in the Potomac Primary in front of more than 16,000 cheering supporters in Madison. He devoted more staff members to Wisconsin -- opening 11 offices in the state, to Clinton's four -- and had TV ads in circulation six days before she did. But Clinton made a late play for a state that offers her some advantages.
Although repeatedly detoured by winter weather, Clinton paid attention to rural and working-class voters in areas far from Madison and Milwaukee, which are considered Obama's prime territory. She ran television ads in markets including Green Bay, Eau Claire and La Crosse, challenging Obama's proposals on health care and energy policy and accusing him of refusing to debate her.
Before departing for an election-eve rally in Beloit, Wis., Obama rallied thousands of cheering supporters in Youngstown, Ohio, where he defended the power of words.
He did not, however, use any of Patrick's lines.
"So, just to be clear, speeches don't put food on the table," Obama said, referring to one of Clinton's recent criticisms. "But the only way that we're going to bring about change is if all of you get excited about change.
"So I make no apologies," he said with a laugh, "for being able to talk good."
Slevin is traveling with the Obama campaign. Staff writers Jose Antonio Vargas and Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.