Five months ago Bob and Judy Beisch, retired teachers from Ottumwa, Iowa, insisted that race was not playing out as an issue in Democrat Barack Obama's campaign in the Hawkeye State, where he scored a decisive win in the state's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses on January 3.
The Illinois senator transcends race, the Beisches told U.S. News at the time, with his white mother and black father and message of hope and change. But Bob Beisch, chairman of the Wapello County Democrats, and his wife, the county party's secretary, were not naïve enough to believe that Obama's mixed race and skin color wouldn't emerge as an issue during a hard-fought battle for the presidency.
What surprised them, they say, is that it has been fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton and her ex-president husband, Bill, who pulled the trigger--and slyly stoked the issue in the weeks leading up to Obama's overwhelming win Saturday in the South Carolina primary.
"We thought this was the way the Republicans fought the war," Bob Beisch said Sunday. Says Judy: "I'm disappointed--but she was falling behind and, politically, I understand it as a last-ditch, desperation effort."
And with Sen. Edward Kennedy, long courted by the Clintons, announcing his support of Obama today on the heels of Caroline Kennedy's endorsement yesterday in the New York Times (she touted the senator as inspiring in the way her father, President John F. Kennedy, was), the Beisches say it will be interesting to watch the Clinton's response.
When Hillary Clinton announced that she "found her voice" after following up Obama's Iowa victory with a big primary win of her own five days later in New Hampshire, she didn't mention that it would be channeled through her husband. Highlights from the ex-prez: Obama represents false hope. His claims about not supporting the Iraq war are a fairy tale. His win in South Carolina was akin to Jesse Jackson's success there two decades ago.
In the course of a pitched battle, no candidate can expect to be exempt from tough rhetoric, challenges, and attacks. But this is uncharted territory. The front-line attack is being led by a popular ex-president campaigning for his wife, and he's pulling from a playbook that the Beisches and many Democrats find offensive. But clearly the Clinton's have calculated that emphasizing Obama's race will turn to Hillary Clinton's favor next week when nearly two dozen states, most with dramatically smaller black voting blocs than South Carolina, hold their primaries and caucuses.
The former president had been understandably angered by Obama's suggestion that Republicans had a corner on ideas through the '90s when the Clinton's occupied the White House. And he and his wife's campaign strategists believe that the media coverage of Obama, including his sharp criticisms of Hillary Clinton, has been soft--even adulatory.
When asked on CBS's "Meet the Press" Sunday whether her husband was "out of control," Clinton smiled. "He loves me," she said. Earlier, she insisted that what has been happening in the campaign is simply a process of drawing contrasts--and, curiously, said that it is part of "voters' rights" to know where the candidates stand.
"Everybody just needs to take a deep breath," she said.
Obama's supporters say they're fired up and ready to go. But, it seems, so are the Clintons. Glide paths to political success are not what they're used to. It's when they're challenged, questioned, criticized that this former first family is at its best, or worst, depending on one's perspective.
So while candidate Clinton and her husband are on far shakier ground with many in the black community (Orlando city commissioner Daisy Lynum says if the Clintons hurt Obama "I'll never vote for them.") and other Democrats troubled by the campaign's tactics, no one is expecting a pullback--even though the Clintons hinted at a new charm offensive by the formerpresident.
The Beisches--he voted for John Edwards in the caucuses, she stood for Obama--say they'll still vote for Clinton if she's the nominee because on the issues there is little to distinguish the three remaining Democratic candidates. But they fully expect the tangle between Obama and the Clintons to become even more intense.
"The Clintons have been around politics for a long time and after Obama took Iowa, we wondered how long it was going to be before they start to throw mud around," Bob Beisch says. "And now I wonder just how nasty the campaign is going to get."
With Super Tuesday only a week away, that question will soon be answered.
By Liz Halloran