Obama Making Senate Inroads

Clinton Still Favored on Hill

Posted February 26, 2008 at 6:51pm

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) still might have an edge over Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) when it comes to the number of Democratic Senators supporting her presidential bid. But with his latest endorsement from Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), Obama now has the backing of three of the Senate’s most seasoned legislators, all one-time presidential hopefuls themselves who seemingly prefer the three-year Senate rookie to his longer-serving competitor.

Dodd on Tuesday became the most recent prominent Democrat to sign up with Obama, a move that came nearly two months after the Connecticut Senator abandoned his presidential campaign. Dodd joins eight other Senators backing Obama’s candidacy so far, including liberal party icon Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Kennedy’s home-state colleague and the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry.

Whether that trio of endorsements matters much beyond a few headlines remains to be seen, but the Senators opted to align with Obama’s candidacy over Clinton’s, a seasoned Democrat whom they have known for longer as both a Senator — she was elected in 2000 — and as the one-time first lady. Dodd is in his fifth term, while Kennedy is serving his ninth term and Kerry is finishing out his fourth.

“It is interesting,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “You have a series of high-profile Senators who’ve all been through the presidential primary wars [and are backing Obama]. That is certainly noteworthy.”

Democratic D.C. shadow Sens. Paul Strauss and Michael Brown also endorsed Obama on Tuesday, and pledged him their superdelegate votes.

Clinton still leads the Senate endorsement chase with 13 Democrats in her corner, including prominent home state Sen. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and leading female Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Senate Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.). Murray was one of the most recent Senators to line up with Clinton’s camp, endorsing late last month.

“There’s a lot of affection of both of them in our Caucus,” explained Schumer, who has been with Clinton from the beginning. “People have different ways of making these decisions.”

With that in mind, Schumer said he would not read too much into any recent uptick in support for Obama from veterans Dodd or Kennedy. Plus, he reminded that Clinton continues to hold greater sway with Members of Congress, having 92 House and Senate backers compared with Obama’s 78.

However, Obama’s Congressional support has grown dramatically in recent weeks — which many Senators argued is directly tied to his new status as the Democratic frontrunner. Several Senators also privately suggested Tuesday that Obama could be attracting new support from some high-profile Democrats who hope to influence his future presidential policies or secure a formal role in a prospective administration.

Dodd is among several Senators who have been mentioned as possible Cabinet secretaries in either an Obama or Clinton White House.

Yet, other Democratic Senators argued that their colleagues aren’t nearly that contrived when making presidential endorsements, with most tying their support to personal relationships or a candidates’ experience or electability. Democratic Senators flatly denied that any support for Obama reflects an animus toward Clinton, or vice versa.

“When you make a choice, I guess it is one over the other. But when I made my choice, I didn’t view it that way,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), an Obama supporter. “I thought he was the leader who could inspire but also help with reconciliation of all the divisions we’ve had over the last eight years plus.”

“This is pro-Obama, not anti-Clinton,” Nelson added of his endorsement. “I think that’s obviously the case for other Senators who made that same decision.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a Clinton supporter, also said she doesn’t believe that there is a particular pattern in play when it comes to Senators making their presidential choices. She argued that many Senators simply have close ties to one candidate, or want to back the Senator who carried their state’s popular vote in the primary contests. For instance, Dodd’s home state of Connecticut supported Obama, whereas Clinton carried the day in Michigan’s unsanctioned primary.

“A lot of this is based on long-term relationships and friendships,” Stabenow said. “Some of us made decisions early, but a lot of people wanted to see it develop. I don’t think this is anti-Clinton. Individual people make their decisions.”

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), another Clinton supporter, agreed, saying he believed that “Senators, like most voters, look at a variety of different things. It’s just we happen to know these guys pretty well.”

Pryor said his alliance with Clinton, the former first lady of Arkansas, was an easy sell. “She understands the needs of my state. I don’t have to explain where Little Rock is.”

Unlike Clinton who has enjoyed strong Senate support for months, Obama only recently started winning endorsements from his fellow Senators. For much of his first year of campaigning, his lone Senate backer was fellow Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, the Majority Whip. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) became the second Senator to come aboard Obama’s campaign in December.

Durbin said Tuesday that while he couldn’t speak for other Senators who have endorsed Obama of late, he believes his Illinois colleague appeals to lawmakers because “he represents a substantial opportunity to win in November and represents a new generation of leadership in our party. I encouraged him to run because I believe him to be that type of candidate and the polls show he is that candidate.”

Kennedy, himself a candidate for the White House in 1980, put it this way: “His appeal is not just with Members of the Senate or governors, it’s with young people, it’s with old people. It’s across the board. People have been touched by his inspiration.”