Obama Seeks To Unify Party For November

By Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 9, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama began taking the first steps to unify the fractured Democratic Party for a general-election battle against Sen. John McCain, even as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton continued to insist that she has the backing of a broader coalition that could carry the party to victory in November.

Returning to Washington yesterday, Obama was mobbed by well-wishers as he walked onto the House floor. But behind the scenes, his campaign worked with a light touch to win over uncommitted superdelegates and allies of Clinton, mindful of not appearing overconfident and of the fact that they would need the backing of the candidate, her husband and their supporters in the fall.

With numerous prominent Democrats believed to be waiting in the wings to endorse his candidacy, Obama appears poised to win the pledged delegates and superdelegates he will need to claim the Democratic nomination as early as May 20, when Kentucky and Oregon vote. But although he appeared to lock down his lead on Tuesday with a strong win in North Carolina and a narrow loss in Indiana, he won only two new superdelegate endorsements yesterday, from Reps. Rick Larsen (Wash.) and Brad Miller (N.C.). Many other unaligned lawmakers said they are likely to remain on the sidelines for the time being, in deference to Clinton.

"Superdelegates understandably would prefer not to be seen as the deciding factor," Obama told reporters between meetings at the Capitol, brushing aside the suggestion that a mass endorsement is in the offing. "I think they respect the process, they respect Senator Clinton and myself."

As Clinton campaigned in West Virginia, which will hold its primary on Tuesday, her backers were also calling superdelegates, encouraging them to remain uncommitted until after the final two primaries on June 3 and touting poll numbers suggesting that Clinton would be a stronger nominee in key states such as Florida and Ohio. "Some people don't agree, but most people respect the argument," said Steve Grossman, a member of Clinton's national finance team.

In Charleston, W.Va., yesterday, Clinton argued that the coalition of voters backing her would make her more viable than Obama against McCain. "The delegate math may get complicated, but the electoral math is easy: We need 270 electoral votes to win in November," she said at a rally.

Clinton is expected to win the state by a hefty margin. Yesterday, she repeatedly referred to her appeal among "hardworking Americans," including "Catholic voters, Hispanic voters, blue-collar voters and seniors -- the kind of people who Senator McCain will be fighting for in the general election." She did not repeat the term "white voters," which she used in a USA Today interview published yesterday.

She also gave no hint of surrender in a letter to Obama about the delegate impasse involving Florida and Michigan. "Your commitment to the voters of these states must be clearly stated and your support for a fair and quick resolution must be clearly demonstrated," she wrote.

After Tuesday's primaries left Obama the clear Democratic front-runner, McCain's campaign refocused its attention on the senator from Illinois, preparing to question his experience on national security and his credentials on reform issues. Clinton, meanwhile, had become an afterthought for the presumptive GOP nominee.

"After I've been saying for a year, 'Don't count the Clintons out until they're out.' People are laughing at me," said Charles Black, a McCain campaign adviser. "I don't see how she does it."

Mark Salter, a senior McCain adviser, struck back sharply after Obama said on CNN that McCain was "losing his bearings" when he suggested that Hamas preferred that Obama be elected. Salter said Obama used the phrase "intentionally, a not particularly clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue. This is typical of Obama's style of campaigning."

In Chicago, Obama's team worked to accelerate a transition to general-election mode that began weeks ago, only to be shelved as the primary showdown continued. In addition to competing in the six remaining contests, Obama will mix in stops to battleground states in the coming weeks, advisers said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company