The argument over race and grievance could carry short term benefits for Hillary Clinton, and could boost her support among white voters in Pennsylvania who may be turned off by a more intense focus on Obama's race. Barack Obama's promise has been in part based on his dexterity in moving past the old-fashioned political battlegrounds - including the politics of race - where he's found himself battling Clinton in recent days.
But a Clinton supporter's charge that Obama has received preferential treatment because he's black also carries serious dangers for her, as senior members of Congress and other superdelegates begin to signal discomfort with the Clinton campaign's increasingly sharp attacks. Notably, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday she thought Clinton's attacks on Obama had put a joint ticket out of the question.
Tuesday's sharp exchange of words between the two campaigns was touched off, ironically, by a remark made by a pioneer from an earlier era: former New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984, who told a California newspaper that Obama had benefited from his race.
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she said. "If he was a woman [of any race] he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
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The cycle of offense and apology - on racial grounds and others - has become a familiar feature of this campaign. But both campaigns swerved deliberately from the pattern Tuesday, choosing confrontation over delicate compromise. Obama's aides announced they'd had enough "offensive" attacks, while Clinton's suggested that they'd had enough of the politics of grievance. A top Obama adviser suggested that Clinton should "repudiate" Ferraro's words, and another demanded Clinton drop her from the campaign. Clinton's campaign, in response, essentially accused Obama of being the one to inject race into the contest, labeling his very complaint a "false, personal and politically calculated attack."
The reactions began Monday night with a relatively mild reaction from Clinton's campaign to the Ferraro comment.
"We disagree with her," spokesman Howard Wolfson told Politico.
Obama's campaign called a midday conference call, where Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, drew a line in the sand.
"All this is part of an insidious pattern that needs to be addressed," he said, suggesting that Clinton is "trying to send a signal to her supporters that anything goes."
Axelrod walked a fine line, not explicitly citing any racial element to the "pattern," and Obama aides later stressed that he had not intended to suggest there was a racial element to the attacks - just a level of "negativity." But the items Axelrod cited - two Clinton supporters' suggestions that Obama's past drug use would hurt him, and Clinton's "own inexplicable unwillingness" to affirm Obama's Christianity in a television interview - have been interpreted in the past by many Obama supporters, inside and outside of the campaign, through a racial prism.
Axelrod also called on Clinton to drop Ferraro from her finance committee.
But Clinton responded blandly.
"I do not agree with that and you know it's regrettable that any of our supporters on both sides say things that veer off into the personal," she said in Pennsylvania.
Then, instead of complying with the demand to ditch a symbol of women's political progress, Clinton's campaign went back on offense Her aides pointed to a moment, six weeks ago in South Carolina, at which Obama's campaign had appeared for a moment to cry racism - with one spokeswoman distributing a memo listing allegedly offensive comments from the Clintons and their allies, and another pointing to "a pattern, or a series of comments" on race. But Obama's senior aides never stated that grievance, and the candidate himself reeled it back in at a Las Vegas debate, appearing to say he regretted his campaign's role in advancing the complaint.
"We agreed then. We agree today. Supporters from both campaigns will get overzealous. Senator Clinton today reiterated that when asked about Geraldine Ferraro's recent comments," said Maggie Williams, Clinton's campaign manager.
It was Ferraro herself who then returned later Wednesday to add gasoline to the fire.
"Racism works in two different directions. I really think they're attacking me because I'm white," she said.
In another interview, she crystallized one of the Clinton campaign's unstated complaints about the racial dynamic of the contest.
"What I find offensive is every time somebody says something about the [Obama] campaign, you're accused of being racist," she said.
Her words drew another statement of disagreement from the Clinton campaign.
"Ms. Ferraro is speaking for herself. We have made clear that we do not agree with her remarks," said Wolfson.
Ferraro was not removed from the campaign - the action Clinton's aides had sought, and gotten, from Obama when one of his advisers called Clinton a "monster" last week.
An Obama adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, insisted that his candidate was right both on the substance and on the politics.
"At some point you have to hit back at this stuff. They are playing this card and you can't just let it lay there. You've got to push back on it," said the adviser.
But driving both campaign's decisions was, above all, the quest for political advantage.
"They have had a really good run recently. This [Ferraro comment] was an opportunity for us to turn the tide back on them," said the Obama adviser. "It's an opportunity for them to have some bad press here.
Beth Frerking contributed to this report.