An increasingly acrimonious competition between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to enlist the Democratic Party's leading fundraisers and operatives burst into the open yesterday, overshadowing what was billed as the presidential campaign's first gathering of candidates in Nevada.
While Clinton (N.Y.) and Obama (Ill.) have not for the most part taken their competition public, their campaigns in recent weeks have been trumpeting each victory, such as the recruitment of a major Boston-based rainmaker by Obama and a prominent African American state senator from South Carolina by Clinton.
The back-and-forth between the two campaigns has largely been fodder for political insiders. Yesterday, however, David Geffen, the music and film producer who is one of the party's most prominent donors, made the fight more public. In an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Geffen said that Clinton is "the easiest to beat" of the Democratic field and skewered her unwillingness to apologize for her 2002 vote to use force in Iraq. "It's not a very big thing to say 'I made a mistake' on the war, and typical of Hillary Clinton that she can't," Geffen said.
Geffen, who was a co-host of an Obama fundraiser Tuesday night in Los Angeles, saved even sharper criticism for former president Bill Clinton, to whom he was close before a falling-out over the pardoning of financier Marc Rich at the end of Clinton's second term. "I don't think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person," Geffen said in an oblique reference to questions surrounding the former president's private life.
After seeing the comments yesterday morning, the Clinton campaign immediately issued a call for Obama to disavow Geffen's remarks and return his $2,300 donation, arguing that they were contrary to Obama's pledge to run a positive campaign.
"A day after Barack Obama goes out and eschews the politics of slash-and-burn, his campaign embraces the politics of trash," said Phil Singer, Clinton's deputy communications director, referring to a speech Obama made Tuesday in Las Vegas.
Obama communications director Robert Gibbs took a markedly different course. After refusing to get in the "middle of a disagreement between the Clintons and someone who was once one of their biggest supporters," Gibbs pointed out that Hillary Clinton had recently praised Robert Ford, another South Carolina state senator who endorsed her and said the Democratic ticket would be in serious trouble if Obama was the nominee because of the color of his skin. Clinton distanced herself from that remark, and Ford later apologized for it.
Obama weighed in later. "It's not clear to me why I would be apologizing for someone else's remarks," he said in Iowa, where he had gone instead of the candidates forum because of a prior commitment. "My sense is that Mr. Geffen may have differences with the Clintons, but that doesn't really have anything to do with our campaign."
At the forum in Carson City, Nev., ABC's George Stephanopoulos, the moderator, asked Clinton whether she agreed with her campaign spokesman that Obama should disavow Geffen's comments.
Clinton did not answer directly. "I want to run a very positive campaign, and I sure don't want Democrats or supporters of Democrats to be engaging in the politics of personal destruction," she said. "I think we should stay focused on what we're going to do for America." She then added, to applause: "And, you know, I believe Bill Clinton was a good president. I'm very proud of the record of his two terms."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson sided with Clinton and called on Obama to denounce Geffen's comments. "I think these name-callings are not good," he said. "I don't know Mr. Geffen. I don't know what was said. . . . But we don't need that. We Democrats should sign a pledge that we all be positive. That's what the American people want."
While her campaign was on the attack against Obama, Clinton found herself on the defensive once more over Iraq. She was challenged again to explain her vote for the 2002 resolution authorizing the war and her reluctance to call that vote a mistake or to express regret for it.
"My vote was a sincere vote based on the facts and assurances that I had at the time," Clinton said. "And I have taken responsibility for my votes and I believe that none of us should get a free pass. It is us up to the voters to judge what each of us has said and done."
Yesterday's forum was sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In addition to Clinton and Richardson, participants included Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, former senator John Edwards (N.C.), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska).
The forum highlighted the West's emerging role as a significant player in the Democratic nomination process. Nevada is scheduled to hold its caucuses five days after the Iowa caucuses, the second contest on the 2008 Democratic calendar.
AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said the union hopes to endorse one of the Democrats before the primary elections. But he said the process will be slower, given the union's experience of having endorsed Howard Dean four years ago, only to see his campaign implode.
Iraq and health care dominated the forum. Vilsack offered the clearest call for Congress to stop funding the Iraq war and bring the troops home. But Biden warned that hasty withdrawal could leave the region in chaos. "People say just get out," he said. "Everybody wants to get out, no one faster than I want to get out. But if that civil war metastasizes into a regional war, we're going to be sending your grandchildren back."
Dodd was asked whether Clinton should apologize for her vote on the war. "Senator Clinton will speak for herself," he said, adding: "When you've made a mistake, there's nothing wrong with admitting that, in my view. . . . It was a mistake, in my view, to vote the way we did five years ago on that resolution."
Edwards, who also supported the authorization of the war, issued what sounded like a clear challenge to the New York senator to say she is sorry for her vote.
"We need a leader who will be open and honest with you and with the American people," he said. "Who will tell the truth when they've made a mistake, who will take responsibility when they've made a mistake."
Asked whether what Clinton had said about her vote was inadequate, he replied, "Whether it's good enough is between her and her conscience. It's not for me to judge."