Candidates take the gloves off for presidential campaigns
By Patrick Healy and Jim Rutenberg
Copyright by The International Herald tribune
Published: February 22, 2007
The sun was not yet up and members of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign team were confronted with the kind of attack that most infuriates them: one questioning the character of Clinton and her husband.
To make matters worse, it came from David Geffen, the Hollywood producer who was once a big supporter of the Clintons but has since turned on them and is now backing Senator Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.
What followed Wednesday was a remarkably caustic exchange between the Clinton and Obama campaigns that highlighted the sensitivity in the Clinton camp to Obama's rapid rise as a rival and his positioning as a fresh face unburdened by the baggage borne by Clinton, the junior senator from New York.
The Clinton camp seemed also to be sending a warning to mudslinging critics that they would be dealt with fiercely.
It began with a column in The New York Times by Maureen Dowd (run Thursday in the International Herald Tribune), in which Geffen said that the Clintons lied "with such ease, it's troubling" and that the Clinton political operation was "going to be very unpleasant and unattractive and effective."
Geffen called Bill Clinton a "reckless guy" who had not changed in the past six years, and suggested that Hillary Clinton was too scripted.
In a statement it fired off at 9:46 a.m. on Wednesday, the Clinton campaign called on Obama to sever his ties with Geffen and return the portion of the $1.3 million that Geffen helped raise Tuesday at a reception in Beverly Hills, California.
"While Senator Obama was denouncing slash-and-burn politics yesterday, his campaign's finance chair was viciously and personally attacking Senator Clinton and her husband," Howard Wolfson, the Clinton campaign communications director, said in a statement.
Bill Burton, a spokesman for Obama, responded with a statement less than an hour and a half later, saying it was "ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen" when he was "raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln Bedroom."
The punch and counterpunch went on all day, transfixing the political world and overshadowing a gathering of all the Democratic candidates except Obama, the junior Illinois senator, at a union- sponsored forum in Nevada at which Hillary Clinton faced criticism from some opponents about her Iraq stance.
The Democrats were not the only ones dealing with intramural warfare.
On the Republican side, Vice President Dick Cheney struck back at criticism leveled against him and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by Senator John McCain of Arizona, underscoring the often tense relationship between the White House and McCain.
The presidential campaign has been a relatively polite affair in its early stages, and the day marked an abrupt change of tone that exposed the intensity of the bad feelings bubbling just below the surface in both parties. None of the players showed much inclination to back off.
In an interview with ABC News in which Cheney was asked about McCain's criticism of Rumsfeld, Cheney responded by bringing up other McCain comments critical of the vice president's role in managing the war in Iraq and said McCain had subsequently said he was sorry.
"John said some nasty things about me the other day," Cheney added, "and then the next time he saw me, ran over to me and apologized. Maybe he'll apologize to Rumsfeld."
In response, McCain seemed to go out of his way to re-emphasize his assertion that Rumsfeld would be remembered as one of the worst defense secretaries in history and to criticize the Bush administration more generally when he appeared at a news conference in Los Angeles to discuss initiatives to deal with global warming.
When asked about the administration's environmental record, McCain said, "I would assess this administration's record on global warming as terrible."
Asked by a reporter about his comments about Rumsfeld, McCain said: "The criticism of the conduct of the war I have voiced for more than three years when I saw that this train wreck was taking place."
Minutes later, after the news conference had ended, McCain, unbidden, said to the reporter, "Sir, I stand by my comments about Secretary Rumsfeld, by the way."
Similarly, Geffen affirmed his view of the Clintons, saying that he had been quoted accurately and that Wolfson was wrong in calling him the finance chairman of the Obama campaign. He said he had no formal role in the campaign.
Hillary Clinton, asked Wednesday afternoon if Obama should denounce the Geffen remarks, declined to join in the hand-to-hand combat, but expressed general disapproval with the remarks while also defending her husband, which drew huge cheers from the audience of union members she was addressing.
"I want to run a very positive campaign, and I sure don't want Democrats or the supporters of Democrats to be engaging in the politics of personal destruction," she said at the forum of Democratic presidential candidates in Carson City, Nevada.
When pressed, she said she would leave it up to the Obama campaign to make its decision on Geffen, then noted that she was "excited" to be in Nevada "with the other candidates who came," a comment that drew attention to Obama's skipping of the event.
As he arrived in Iowa late Wednesday afternoon, Obama was met with questions from reporters about the clash.
"It's not clear to me why I would be apologizing for someone else's remarks," Obama said. "My sense is that Mr. Geffen may have differences with the Clintons, but that doesn't really have anything to do with our campaign."
When asked whether he was proud of Geffen's support, the senator declared: "He hosted an event for me yesterday. Absolutely."
Jennifer Steinhauer and Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.