June 27, 2008

Obama, Clinton Hit the Campaign Trail in New Hampshire

UNITY, N.H. _ Two fierce and sometimes spiteful rivals offered a schoolyard embrace Friday, standing in the same state where one had first blocked the other from what could have been a much quicker and less painful path to the Democratic presidential nomination.

In an effort to display the equivalent of this tiny town's name, Sen. Hillary Clinton praised the man she beat in January's New Hampshire primary, triggering a prolonged primary fight that threatened to drain party unity and resources for November.

"We may have started on separate paths, but today our paths have merged. Today our hearts are set on the same destination for America," Clinton said. "Today, we are coming together for the same goal: to elect Barack Obama as the next president of the United States."

Obama sat on a stool beside Clinton as she spoke. When it was his turn, he joined the crowd in cheers of "Thank you, Hillary. Thank you, Hillary."

Much remains unresolved about what role Clinton may play in Obama's campaign, including whether she may have a spot on the ticket as a vice-presidential nominee, though the Obama camp has dropped hints it is looking at other candidates. A team of high-powered Washington attorneys is negotiating over such open questions as whether the Obama campaign will provide her staff and a private plane to campaign on his behalf, as well as how much help Obama will provide with her campaign debt.

But Clinton demonstrated she could adeptly shift from the starring role of candidate to a supporting one as surrogate and offered assurances she and former President Bill Clinton were ready to help on the campaign trail.

Obama's and Clinton's first joint public appearance was mostly about outward gestures, and the symbolism for the political couple was striking.

His baby-blue tie matched the color of her pantsuit. He greeted her with a kiss on the cheek when they met on the airport tarmac in Washington for the flight together up to New Hampshire. They embraced before the crowd, whispered in each other's ear and worked the rope-line together.

The night before, in a private event at a Washington hotel, Clinton appeared together with Obama at a gathering of many of her top fundraisers to ask for their assistance with his campaign. Days earlier, Obama had asked his own high-level donors to help Clinton pay down her campaign debt.

"This is not 1980, where Ted Kennedy did not even endorse (rival Jimmy Carter) until they got to the convention," said Chris Lehane, Al Gore's press secretary in the 2000 campaign. "They've already crossed the Rubicon in terms of working together."

In New Hampshire, Obama treated Clinton with considerable deference. He offered fulsome praise for her "toughness" and "unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

"I've admired her as a leader. I've learned from her as a candidate," he said, pausing and picking up on a shout from the crowd. "She rocks, she rocks. That's the point I'm trying to make."

Courting female Clinton supporters who in some cases still have raw emotions over the former first lady's defeat, he also touched on the gender biases many in the Clinton camp saw in her treatment during the primary campaign. And he paid tribute to the barriers she broke as a major presidential candidate.

"Because of the campaign that Hillary Clinton waged, my daughters and all of your daughters will forever know there is no barrier to who they are and what they can be in the United States of America," he added.

Clinton said the two had waged a "hard-fought" campaign and that she respected Obama's "strength and determination, his grace and his grit."

The symbolism of holding the event here went beyond the town's name.

After winning the Iowa caucuses, Obama had seemed poised to win the New Hampshire primary, a one-two punch that could have easily knocked Clinton from the race and essentially ended the nomination fight five months earlier.

While Clinton and Obama each won 107 Democratic votes here, New Hampshire was also where the former first lady showed a more human side and proved her ability to appeal especially to the working class and older women.

Both are groups Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, wants to target, while Obama hopes a hard-campaigning Clinton can help keep them in the Democratic column.

New Hampshire, of course, holds a special place for McCain as well. He won the state's Republican primary and has campaigned in the battleground state several times since.

The Republican National Committee has eagerly tried to remind voters of the past disunity in the party, shipping past snipes between Obama and Clinton to reporters.

Near the state's western border, Unity has only about 1,500 residents, fewer people than the more than 4,000 who attended the rally. The town has one general store and no stoplights.

It is such a small place that even in a state where presidential candidates every four years routinely roam nearly corner, locals say they cannot remember any actually stopping by before Friday.

While some of Clinton's supporters are still nursing hard feelings from the brutal primary contest, others at the event said they are ready to move on.

"I still love everything she stood for," said Debbie Freyman, a special education teacher from nearby Wilmot, N.H., who voted for Clinton in January. "Aside from the silly stuff that was going on in the primary campaign, you knew they were ultimately going to be walking side by side."


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