Democratic presidential candidates move toward unity


Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 10:28 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 10:28 a.m.

LAS VEGAS - The Democratic presidential candidates have moved from the politics of piling on to the politics of unity.

Stung by a nasty dispute over race and politics that may have damaged both of their campaigns and their party, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton called a truce during a debate Tuesday night.

Both sides recognized that nothing good could have come out of the fight continuing. The Clintons risked appearing racially insensitive and damaging their legacy as champions of civil rights. Obama risked being defined simply by his race and destroying his brand as a candidate who can unite America.

And they both risked creating lasting divisions with one of the Democratic Party's most important constituencies the black community that was already taking sides in the primary fight.

Democratic consultant Donna Brazile said the recent back-and-forth which featured arguing over the role of Dr. Martin Luther King and references to Obama's youthful drug use was starting to drown out what the candidates really wanted to say in the campaign.

"It became clear the candidates were having a hard time getting their message across," she said.

So Obama and Clinton came together in the debate to blame the whole thing on others.

"We both have exuberance and sometimes uncontrollable supporters," Clinton said.

"I think that, as Hillary said, our supporters, our staff get overzealous," Obama said. "They start saying things that I would not say."

But they also made fresh acknowledgments. Obama had previously said that Clinton's allegation that his campaign had fanned the story's flames was "ludicrous," but in the debate he said he regretted that his staff had pushed the story.

And although Clinton refused to admit that one of her supporters referred to Obama's drug use while introducing her at a campaign event, she allowed that his comments were out of bounds.

John Edwards, the one candidate who arguably could benefit from Obama and Clinton getting distracted in a race war that threatened to destroy them both, also waded in carefully. He tried to show that even though he's a white guy, he has a special understanding of the tensions brewing and the importance of moving on.

"I had the perspective of living in the South, including a time when there was segregation in the South," he said. "I lived with it in my years growing up I think we, all of us, have an enormous responsibility not to go back but to go forward."

Some have argued that the dispute could help Obama in South Carolina, where at least half of the turnout in the Jan. 26 primary is expected to be black. But even if it helped rally black voters to his side, there were risks beyond that, when white voters take to the polls and could have been turned off by any perceived egging on of a racial spat.

Part of Obama's appeal to blacks, and especially whites, is the hope that he could move the country beyond its ugly past of racial strife. But first the candidates had to get past the ugly politics of the present.

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