Ever since Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., started running for president, her team has argued that she is more electable than Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.: more experience, as first lady and senator; more spine, after years fighting Republicans; and more popular with key voter blocs, like women, Hispanics and the elderly.
Yet this week, Clinton’s electability argument has taken on a new dimension that for her and her advisers is both discomfiting and unpredictable, but also potentially helpful. Some Democrats are now looking at the racially incendiary and anti-American remarks of Obama’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and wondering if that association could weaken Obama as a nominee.
Clinton advisers have asked their allies not to talk openly about the issue, for fear it could create a voter backlash and alienate black Democrats. They also say Obama is in enough trouble over Wright that they do not need to foment more — and, besides, cable television is keeping the issue alive.
On Thursday night, the Obama campaign, in an effort to shift the spotlight to the Clintons, provided The New York Times with a picture of Wright and President Bill Clinton at the White House in 1998 at a breakfast meeting with religious leaders just hours before the Starr report on the Monica Lewinsky scandal was made public.
The Obama campaign also provided a letter Bill Clinton sent to Wright the next month thanking Wright for a “kind message” and saying he was touched by his prayers.
A spokesman for Hillary Clinton said Thursday night that the campaign did not believe the Clintons had met with Wright before the speech or were aware of any views expressed by him at his church.
Phil Singer, a Clinton campaign spokesman, said in an e-mail message, “In the course of his two terms in office, Bill Clinton met with, corresponded with and took pictures with literally tens of thousands of people.”
Despite the complications and risks of engaging on the issue, some allies of Hillary Clinton said they were privately pushing the issue with key party members to lift her candidacy. And at least one prominent surrogate of hers has gone off message: Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House lawyer, has publicly challenged Obama to answer questions about his views on racist speech and Wright.
Clinton, of New York, side-stepped questions from reporters Thursday about Wright and electability. At one point, she turned away from a reporter, pursed her lips and shook her head no. A spokesman said afterward she was unaware of anyone involved in the campaign pushing the Wright matter with superdelegates.
As a matter of strategy, top Clinton allies and advisers said Thursday they were treading carefully when it came to talking about Wright with superdelegates, the elected officials and party leaders whose votes could determine the Democratic nomination. They said they were aware of the potential repercussions of pressing the issue too directly but were convinced this was going to be a key factor in superdelegates’ making a judgment on Obama’s electability.