Richardson Endorsement Sparks More Negative Campaigning In Clinton-Obama Race

The current "interregnum" leading up to the Pennsylvania primary April 22 is fast becoming one of the worst periods of negative campaigning so far in the presidential contest.

Instead of using the six-week lull--when there are no primaries or caucuses--as an opportunity to debate big issues and elevate the tone, the run-up to Pennsylvania has been filled with recriminations and increasingly nasty charges. All this has intensified the concern of many Democrats that the animosities between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in their closely fought nomination race are getting out of hand.

The latest blowup came over the weekend. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's endorsement of Obama on Friday provoked an unusually harsh response from James Carville, one of Hillary Clinton's informal advisers. Carville told the New York Times that Richardson had committed "an act of betrayal" and said it "came right around the anniversary of the day when Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver, so I think the timing is appropriate, if ironic."

Richardson fired back on Fox News Sunday: "I'm not going to get in the gutter like that. And you know, that's typical of many of the people around Senator Clinton. They think they have a sense of entitlement to the presidency." Richardson was energy secretary and United Nations ambassador for President Bill Clinton, and the Clintons seem more than a little angered at his endorsement of Clinton's rival.

The Clintons' concern, according to campaign sources, isn't so much that Richardson, who is Hispanic and who was a presidential candidate until recently, might lure Latino voters to Obama. Clinton aides point out that if that was his purpose, he should have endorsed Obama weeks ago and perhaps made a difference in Texas and other heavily Hispanic areas.

The Clintons' larger concern is that Richardson's move might encourage other superdelegates to sign up with Obama, who leads in pledged delegates and popular votes for the Democratic presidential nomination. Many of those superdelegates--about 800 elected officials and party activists and leaders--are worried that the race is getting too divisive and are eager for it to be decided. They can cast their votes independent of the results of the primaries and caucuses, and they could hold the balance of power in deciding the nominee.

Clinton's campaign is relying on those superdelegates as her last best hope for winning the nomination.

Illustrating the harsh environment were remarks made by Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson today in a conference call with reporters. Wolfson said Obama is breaking his promise to stay on the "high ground" and added that the Obama campaign's main message is "not to build him up but to tear Senator Clinton down."

Wolfson and other Clinton aides were sharply critical of Gordon Fischer, former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and an Obama supporter, for a posting that Fischer wrote on his blog over the weekend. Fischer criticized former president Bill Clinton for allegedly implying that Obama was "not a patriot" according to the blog. And in a reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Fischer added: "This is a stain on his legacy, much worse, much deeper, than the one on Monica's blue dress." Fischer removed that posting from his blog and included an apology on Monday. But Wolfson and other Clinton advisers denounced him. Clinton's spokesman Phil Singer said Fischer's comments were "gutter tactics" and were typical of Obama's using "insult and slander" against Clinton.

The rising bitterness in the Democratic campaign also erupted over remarks Bill Clinton made in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday. Referring to Hillary Clinton and John McCain, he said, "I think it would be a great thing if we had an election where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country. And people could actually askthemselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics."

In response, Merrill "Tony" McPeak, a retired general who is a cochairman of Obama's campaign, said Bill Clinton was questioning Obama's patriotism and compared Clinton's tactics to those of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who tried to link many Americans with communism in the 1950s.

This in turn caused Hillary spokesman Wolfson to call McPeak's comments "a deliberately pathetic misreading of what the president said."

Overall, an additional development has supercharged the debate--the controversial remarks of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor in Chicago, that many people considered anti-American and anti-white.

By Kenneth T. Walsh