By Anne E. Kornblut and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 27, 2008
Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton showered each other with praise yesterday in their first joint appearance since the end of the Democratic presidential primary season at an event in which the senator from New York urged hundreds of her top donors to get behind the party's presumptive nominee.
Clinton spoke first at the event at a Washington hotel, telling her disappointed supporters that Democrats "are a family, and we have an opportunity now to really demonstrate clearly we do know what's at stake, and we will do whatever it takes to win back this White House."
Obama hailed his former rival and her backers. "I recognize that this room shared the same passion that a roomful of my supporters would show. I do not expect that passion to be transferred. Senator Clinton is unique, and your relationships with her are unique." But he added: "Senator Clinton and I at our core agree deeply that this country needs to change."
He also sought to lead the move to unite by example, announcing that he had personally written a check for $2,300, the maximum he can give, to help retire Clinton's more than $20 million in campaign debt and that he had urged his biggest supporters to follow suit. The announcement drew a standing ovation. More than 200 Clinton fundraisers were on hand for the emotional event. Clinton supporter Terence R. McAuliffe, who emceed the event, said that the people in the sparse conference room had helped to bring in $230 million for her campaign.
Obama faced some tough questions during the event, designed to help put 18 months of hard feelings aside and allow Democrats to focus on a general-election campaign against Republican Sen. John McCain. At one point, an attendee told Obama that if he wanted to be seen as a true leader, he needed acknowledge that sexism had played a role in the demise of Clinton's campaign. Obama agreed and said that the issue should be addressed.
The senator from Illinois also worked to assure the assembled fundraisers and donors that the campaign is not taking them for granted as his campaign prepared to try to raise more money than any presidential candidate has in history.
"He said, 'Look, if any of you have been feeling that all we want from you is your fundraising ability, I want to cancel those feelings right now,' " said Mark Aronchick, a Clinton fundraiser in Pennsylvania who attended the event. " 'Put them aside. In fact, I want your networks, your influence in your communities, the opinions you have.' From my point of view, he couldn't have said anything more important."
The event, held at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, was a long-awaited step toward bringing the two sides together after the hardest-fought primary campaign in recent history. Obama and Clinton will travel to the town of Unity, N.H. -- which gave each candidate 107 votes in its January primary -- this morning for their first public appearance together.
Building on the joint appearances late this week, top Clinton and Obama fundraisers are also scheduled to hold a series of events, including a meeting with Obama backer Penny Pritzker and Clinton supporters Steven Rattner and Maureen White on Tuesday, followed by a fundraising event that night held by major bundlers from both camps. Obama will return to New York a week later for a dinner and gala event, both of which senior Clinton supporters will attend.
Aides described a slowly thawing relationship in which many questions have yet to be answered. The New York Times reported yesterday that Robert Barnett, a lawyer who has brokered book deals for Hillary and Bill Clinton and for Obama, had been brought in to mediate some of the conflicts.
Bill Clinton's role in the coming months has become one of the main sticking points. Obama has not called the former president, and Bill Clinton has not reached out to Obama in the three weeks since the Democratic primary season ended, aides to both said. They said the degree of the rift between the two men has been exaggerated, but neither side denied that the part the former president will play in the fall campaign is one of the jagged edges in a merger that has begun to take shape.
Other signs of strain also persist. Some former Clinton advisers expressed irritation that Obama seems to believe that he can win the election without them or her supporters. The former president has told acquaintances that he is still upset by the tone of the campaign, particularly the way the media covered it. (He has spent the past week or so in Europe, appearing in Germany, Portugal and Britain.)
Questions also remain about what role the Clintons will play at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer, and about Obama's commitment to helping retire Hillary Clinton's campaign debt.
Yet both campaigns said that the planning of the Unity event has been smooth, with Mo Elleithee, a Clinton spokesman, and Kim Molstre, a scheduler, handling much of the back-and-forth on behalf of the shuttered campaign.
Donors said they have found similar signs of progress. Kirk Wagar, a top Florida fundraiser for Obama, said that he has "been shocked at how quickly a lot of my friends who were helping Senator Clinton have come on board" and that "I would like to think our folks would have gone as quickly, but I don't know that."
He added: "It's been a lot less bumpy than I expected."
Longtime Clinton fundraiser Robert Zimmerman also said he has seen progress over the past few weeks.
"Look, you don't achieve energy and excitement through a press release or a sound bite or a rally. It takes time," he said. "I have never seen a candidate work as hard as Hillary has to build unity."
Zimmerman said that he has spoken with Obama advisers and that he thinks they are sincere in their desire to see him and others join the campaign.
"I think they're clearly making efforts," he said. "From my discussions, they are very committed to including the Clinton fundraisers. It's funny: The stakes are so high, and the choice is so clear, that it's now beyond partisan politics. It's really about changing the direction of the country. Everyone is really pulling together. Every day, I see new examples of that.
"Everyone has checked their egos at the door."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.