Remark About RFK Keeps Clinton on the Defensive

Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with backers in Boqueron, Puerto Rico, ahead of next Sunday's Democratic primary.
Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with backers in Boqueron, Puerto Rico, ahead of next Sunday's Democratic primary. (By Elise Amendola -- Associated Press)
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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton tried again yesterday to explain her reference last week to Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, while her campaign aides accused Sen. Barack Obama's advisers of taking the comment out of context and exploiting it.

In an interview in South Dakota on Friday, Clinton was discussing why she is still seeking her party's presidential nomination when she referred to the assassination of Kennedy -- then, like her, a senator from New York -- on June 5, 1968, as he celebrated his victory in the California primary. She used the June date to illustrate how long the Democratic race has gone on in past cycles, and she apologized after it caused an immediate furor. But yesterday she said the remarks had been misinterpreted.

"Almost immediately, some took my comments entirely out of context and interpreted them to mean something completely different -- and completely unthinkable," Clinton wrote in an article published in the New York Daily News, whose publisher, Mort Zuckerman, is a longtime friend of the Clintons.

"I want to set the record straight: I was making the simple point that given our history, the length of this year's primary contest is nothing unusual," Clinton said. She went on to say that she "was deeply dismayed and disturbed" that her comment about Kennedy's shooting would be construed as anything other than a historical reference.

Her campaign chairman, Terence R. McAuliffe, was more explicit in his criticism. "It's unfortunate -- a hyped-up press over Memorial Day weekend, the Obama campaign inflaming it, tried to take these words out of context," he said on "Fox News Sunday."

On Friday, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, Bill Burton, said Clinton's statement was "unfortunate and has no place in this campaign." On Saturday, Obama told a Puerto Rican radio station that he took Clinton at her word when she said she meant no harm in invoking Kennedy's assassination.

Neither Clinton nor McAuliffe -- nor Obama or his spokesmen -- mentioned the concern about his safety, particularly among African Americans, that the reference to Kennedy touched on. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in March, nearly six in 10 Americans said they were worried that someone might try to harm Obama (Ill.) if he were the nominee -- more than double the percentage who said they were worried about the same for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee.

Among African Americans, the concern was even greater: More than eight in 10 said they would be worried about Obama's safety, including 55 percent who said they would be "very concerned" (20 percent of whites said they would have that level of fear).

Clinton devoted the rest of her op-ed piece to answering the same question raised in the interview with the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls -- why she is still in the race, "even in the face of calls from pundits and politicians" for her to leave it. She ticked off seven reasons, including her belief that she can still win, that she owes it to older women who have told her they want to see a woman in the White House, and that staying in the race will help unite the Democratic Party.

Campaigning for a second day in Puerto Rico, which will hold its primary next Sunday, Clinton continued her theme that she has defied the pundits by staying in the race.

"If I had listened to those who had been talking the last several months, we would not been having this campaign in Puerto Rico today," she told several hundred people at an evangelical church in Hormigueros.


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