By Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 28, 2008
UNITY, N.H., June 27 -- Sen. Barack Obama wanted a symbolic beginning for his alliance with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he achieved it Friday when the former rivals traveled here together for an afternoon rally designed to unite Democrats for the fall campaign.
Besides the message its name sent, the town of Unity also had the distinction of splitting its votes evenly in New Hampshire's presidential primary, with Clinton and Obama each picking up 107 votes, and it served as a carefully chosen backdrop for transitioning the senator from New York into a substantial role in the Obama campaign.
"I know what we start here in this field in Unity will end on the steps of the Capitol when Barack Obama takes the oath of office as our next president," Clinton said, speaking to a crowd of 4,000 outside Unity Elementary School on a steamy day.
"I don't think it's at all unknown among this audience that this was a hard-fought primary campaign," she continued. "But today and every day going forward, we stand shoulder to shoulder for the ideals we share, the values we cherish and the country we love."
Neither side expects major problems in melding the two operations, but after the party's closest nominating contest in modern history, there is no expectation that it will happen overnight. The emotions from the primary fight remain raw for some Clinton supporters, but Obama advisers were encouraged by Friday's first step.
"I think they stand in a pretty good place," senior adviser David Axelrod said.
Taking his turn at the lectern after Clinton introduced him, Obama was effusive in his praise for her. "As someone who took the same historic journey as Senator Clinton, who watched her campaign and debate, I know firsthand how good she is, how tough she is, how passionate she is, how committed she is to the causes that brought all of us here today."
Clinton's first order of business will be soothing her disappointed and even angry supporters, including many women who regard Obama as an upstart who denied the country its first female president. Clinton could help boost Obama's support among women, whose backing will be crucial to his prospects in November.
In Unity, she vouched for the rival she had sparred with for 18 months. "I know Senator Obama. I've served with him in the Senate for four years. I've campaigned with and against him for lots of months," she told the crowd. "So I've had a front-row seat to his candidacy. And I've seen his strength and his determination, his grace and his grit."
But even in Unity, some Clinton backers were not ready to let go. "We want Hillary!" a handful of fans shouted as she spoke. "It's over!" a voice yelled back.
"We cannot let this moment slip away," Clinton pressed on. "For anyone who voted for me and who is now considering not voting, or voting for Senator McCain, I strongly urge you to reconsider. I urge you to remember what we are standing for in this election."
Obama advisers also view Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, as having a unique ability to speak to voters for whom the economy is a chief concern. That was a weakness for Obama in the primary campaign, and an area in which his campaign would welcome help from the Clintons.
Stitching the Democratic Party back together after the grueling primary campaign is one of Obama's top priorities, and his advisers expressed optimism that Clinton has shown no reluctance to help make that happen.
If Obama is able to fully consolidate the Democratic vote, he will make it much harder for his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, to win the presidency, because many more Americans currently identify with the Democratic Party rather than the GOP.
Clinton is eager to have Obama's assistance in retiring her campaign debt. He took a symbolic step on Thursday by writing her a check for $2,300, the maximum allowed by law. The Clintons returned the favor Friday, by each giving Obama $2,300 for his general-election campaign.
More bridge building took place on Thursday night, when Clinton introduced Obama to 200 of her top donors at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Despite the emotional undercurrent in the room, Obama was greeted warmly and received a standing ovation when he vowed to help Clinton raise money to pay her bills.
"We're all Democrats," said Jerry Lundergan, who chaired Clinton's Kentucky campaign and attended the event. "If we all believe in the same principles, then we're going to support Barack Obama."
Obama officials acknowledge that there are limits to what the campaign can do to help Clinton, but they are encouraged that Clinton seems willing to help Obama defeat McCain. "She wants to do a lot," said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about internal campaign discussions.
Clinton also is pressing the Obama campaign to hire as many of her campaign workers as possible. At Obama's Chicago headquarters, officials are recruiting some of Clinton's best organizers with the goal of placing them in key battleground states. The Obama team recently hired Neera Tanden, Clinton's chief policy adviser, and other senior Clinton advisers may also come aboard.
The campaigns are working to handle such matters before turning their attention more fully to how often and where Clinton will campaign for Obama in the fall. Beyond that is the question of Clinton's role at the Democratic National Convention and whether Obama will seriously consider her as a potential running mate.
Working out the relationship with Bill Clinton may be difficult, given the tension that existed between him and Obama during the primaries. The former president has said he stands fully behind Obama, but the two have not yet had a serious conversation since the primary season ended.
In recent weeks, Obama has made a point of speaking fondly of both Clintons, and he struck a similar note in Unity. "I know how much we need both Bill and Hillary Clinton as a party and as a country in the months and years to come. They have done so much great work," he said. "We need them. We need them badly."
One Clinton voter who was not impressed was Carmella Lewis, a Clinton delegate from Denver. Lewis traveled to Unity to see her candidate one last time, and jeered throughout the event, while waving an autographed Clinton campaign sign. At one point while Obama was speaking, she plugged her ears with tissue paper. "I can't stand him," she said. "I'm either not voting, or I'm voting for John McCain."
Clinton was upbeat for most of her speech, but she ended on a wistful note. "It has been the honor and privilege of my life to compete for the presidency of the United States. To meet the people who have invested so much, your time, your money, your heart, your soul, in this election," she said.
"So think hard about how we will fulfill the promise of this great nation, how we will uphold the ideals that we cherish, and reclaim the country we love." The crowd chanted, "Thank you, Hillary," as she moved to the back of the stage.