Starting Gate: Hope Fades

Even in this marathon campaign (let's not forget that these presidential candidates have now been running full-time for well over a year now), the punches have for the most part stayed above the belt-line. That's not a small achievement for a political culture which has defined, and at times celebrated, terms like "dirty tricks."

It was supposed to be the "big" campaign, devoid of petty arguments about boxers and briefs, sexual witch hunts and whether or not the candidates inhaled. Through the course of 20-plus debates and all but ten primary and caucus contests, the campaigns on both sides have been fought out over issues, things like the war, the economy, trade, immigration, health care, taxes and. Even the forays into race and gender issues, while emotional and potentially divisive, have been important discussions. Barack Obama's well-received speech this week proved that. And voters have been engaged in the process like never before.

The hope that such discourse will continue is rapidly slipping away however, despite pledges and assurances from the remaining candidates themselves to keep their campaigns on the high ground. But the road to the gutter is paved with good intentions.

Plenty of questions remain but news that two State Department employees have been fired (and one disciplined) for apparently rummaging around in Obama's passport files should serve as a wake-up call for anyone thinking that the era of petty politics is over. So far, all we know is that these three people accessed Obama's files.

We don't know what they were looking for, who they are or what their motivation was but it brings up memories of the search for dirt on Bill Clinton that led to a government investigation. We don't know if they are sympathetic to the Republican Party or to Hillary Clinton or whether they were just mischievous or curious. But it's not comforting for the hopes this campaign was supposed to embody.

The news came on the same day that the McCain campaign suspended an aide for circulating a Web video with racial overtones that portrayed Obama as unpatriotic. The video was produced by the producer of a conservative talk-radio show, an industry which has found itself revived in this campaign. Many Democrats are up in arms over Rush Limbaugh's suggestions in recent primaries that GOP voters cross over to vote for Hillary Clinton in the hopes of continuing a divisive primary fight. Dirty tricks or savvy tactics?

Of course we saw some of this activity earlier. Anonymous e-mails spreading false information about Mitt Romney's religion and those insisting that Obama is a Muslim who was sworn in on the Koran instead of the Bible popped up early and often. But an e-mail campaign is small potatoes compared to what we're likely to see when the 527 organizations kick in. Can the candidates control it even if they want to?

Two Cabinet Appointments Weren't Enough?: That was the question Bill Clinton reportedly asked Bill Richardson back in February when he was trying to woo (or harass) the former presidential candidate to get off the fence and back Clinton's candidacy. Apparently the answer, from the man appointed as U.N. Ambassador and Energy Secretary by President Clinton, was no. Richardson will endorse Obama in Oregon today.

In an e-mail to supporters, the New Mexico governor insisted "my affection and admiration for Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton will never waver. It is time," Richardson cited Obama's speech on race as one reason for his decision. "As a Hispanic, I was particularly touched by his words. I have been troubled by the demonization of immigrants--specifically Hispanics-- by too many in this country. Hate crimes against Hispanics are rising as a direct result and now, in tough economic times, people look for scapegoats and I fear that people will continue to exploit our racial differences--and place blame on others not like them."

More from Richardson: "During the past year, I got to know Senator Obama as we campaigned against each other for the Presidency, and I felt a kinship with him because we both grew up between words, in a sense, living both abroad and here in America. In part because of these experiences, Barack and I share a deep sense of our nation's special responsibilities in the world."

Friends And Acquaintances: A picture has "magically" appeared showing former President Bill Clinton shaking hands with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright at a White House lunch in the 1990s. Wright was invited to be part of a prayer breakfast in September, 1998, right about the time the Starr report was due to come out detailing Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While there's no evidence that Clinton knew about the kinds of comments Wright has made which have caused controversy of late, the Obama campaign was quick to cry hypocrisy.

"Less than 48 hours after calling for a high-minded conversation on race, according to the New York Times the Obama campaign is peddling photos of an occasion when President Clinton shook hands with Reverend Wright," the Clinton campaign said in a statement. "To be clear, President Clinton took tens of thousands of photos during his eight years as president." "After their top surrogates pushed this story line and Senator Clinton's campaign outlined this as a central strategy in her plan to overturn the will of Democratic voters, I can see why they wouldn't want such a photo out there that shows the respect even President Clinton has for Reverend Wright," the Obama campaign retorted.

Around The Track

  • Obama headed into March with a huge money advantage, according to finance figures out today. His campaign had $30 million in the bank at the end of February, compared to just the $9 million Clinton had on hand. Go to our Politics Section for all the details.
  • In case you're wondering (and who isn't really), Obama went 13 and 3 in his NCAA bracket on day one, incorrectly picking only Winthrop, USC and Baylor to win. Luckily for him, he had all three losing in the next round (for bracket geeks only).
  • Geraldine Ferraro took great exception for being mentioned alongside Rev. Wright in Obama's speech this week. "To equate what I said with what this racist bigot has said from the pulpit is unbelievable. He gave a very good speech on race relations, but he did not address the fact that this man is up there spewing hatred," she said.
  • In today's Wall Street Journal, Democratic pollster Doug Schoen calls for Howard Dean to strike a "grand bargain" to resolve the Florida and Michigan disputes, one that would make Dean a kingmaker.