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Bayh Warns That GOP May 'Swift Boat' Obama Over His Former Pastor

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The Post's Dan Balz speaks with Indiana's junior senator about his support for Hillary Clinton, the Rev. Wright controversy, and Hoosier State politics. Video by Emily Freifeld, Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; 3:25 PM

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) today praised Sen. Barack Obama for denouncing his former pastor, but warned that Republicans will use the association to try to "Swift Boat" the Illinois senator if he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee this fall.

Bayh, who is supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, said he hoped other issues -- the economy, gasoline prices, health care and the cost of college -- will drive the decisions of most voters in Tuesday's Indiana primary. Obama has struggled in other states to win the votes of white, working class voters, and they could be the deciding vote next Tuesday.

Noting that even Obama has called the controversy of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright "a legitimate issue," Bayh said that in a presidential race, those voters will take more than the economy into their decision making before the primary.

"You're running for president and people want to get a sense of who you are, and when you're new to the public stage you're a little more susceptible to having the canvas painted in by your political opponents," Bayh said during an interview for the video program "PostTalk" on washingtonpost.com.

Bayh said neither he nor Clinton intended to inject the Wright controversy into the primary, but he is worried that Republicans will do so in a general election. "I'm sure the far right will be out there trying to do the whole Swift Boat thing and that sort of thing. But I hope people will focus on the most substantive issues and I think the vast majority of them will."

Bayh predicted a photo-finish in Tuesday's Indiana primary, but declined to called the Hoosier state a must-win event for Clinton. She trails Obama in polls in North Carolina, which also votes on Tuesday. A double loss on Tuesday would represent a major setback to her slender hopes of winning the Democratic nomination.

Bayh said that Indiana's proximity to Obama's home state of Illinois and the fact that independents and Republicans can vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary put Clinton at a greater disadvantage than she was in Pennsylvania last week, where only Democrats could vote. "If we had the same rules as Pennsylvania, I think she would win handily," Bayh said.

Bayh said Clinton started the Indiana race running behind Obama and has now brought the race to even. If she carries Indiana, this will be a very significant victory for her, he said.

Asked what advice he would give her if she loses Indiana and North Carolina, he demurred, saying he preferred to offer such guidance privately. "That's just a decision that she'll have to make," he said.

Bayh downplayed his own ability to deliver the state for Clinton next week. "There are no machines left in modern politics," he said with a laugh. But he added that the most useful advice he had given his Senate colleague was to be herself.

"She tends to portray a level of seriousness -- not to suggest he's not serious -- but strength, seasoning, the ability to deliver results," Bayh said in describing Clinton's appeal. "And so people who really feel they've got a lot at stake in this election I think are drawn more to her because they want somebody who'll actually get the job done, deliver the results, that they yearn for in their daily lives."

Bayh conceded there is some discomfort within the Democratic Party over the length and intensity of the Obama-Clinton campaign and said he prefers to see the nomination decided before Democrats assemble in Denver for their convention next August.

But he insisted there must be a solution to Michigan and Florida and said one key issue will be determining whether to count the popular vote in each state in assessing which candidate has won the most votes during the primaries and caucuses. The Democratic party has discounted the votes in those two states because their primaries were held in January, in violation of party rules.

Obama is expected to maintain a lead among pledged delegates, but Clinton is hoping to edge ahead of him in the popular vote. "The pledged delegates are intermediaries for real people," he said. "So who got the most real people to vote for them is something that matters. I don't know if we'll be able to determine who got the most real votes until we figure out how to count Florida and Michigan."

Bayh agreed that the Michigan issue is clouded because Obama took his name off the ballot there. But he insisted that counting Florida in the popular vote tabulation is entirely fair. "As a matter of law, those votes count," he said.

Bayh said if there is a clear outcome after the primaries end, then the superdelegates ought to quickly ratify the decision. But he held open that there could be another round of uncertainty. "If it looks like one side won the popular vote but another side won the pledged delegates, depending on how you count Florida, then maybe we've got a process we've got to go through to decide Florida and Michigan," he said. "But I don't think we're going to know until we get there."


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