After Pa., a Softer Tone Is Sought
Uncommitted Democratic Congressional superdelegates largely held their fire Wednesday after New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 9-point win over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in Pennsylvania, saying she earned the right to continue but cautioning the pair to tone down the rhetoric and stick to the big issues.
Democratic aides said Clinton did just well enough to keep most uncommitted superdelegates on the sidelines for now but not so well as to challenge Obama’s sizable overall edge.
“Sen. Clinton’s still in the game,” Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) said, adding that he will remain uncommitted until June, after the last primary in Puerto Rico. “I think she’s earned the right to continue.”
Altmire said there will be intense pressure to make a decision quickly once the primaries end.
“There is a very real concern that this is going to hurt our eventual nominee if we allow this to continue,” he said.
But Democrats also said Obama’s weakness in rural and working-class parts of Pennsylvania shows he will have to improve his performance in those areas should he win the nomination.
“I do think he has a problem connecting with blue-collar, working-class people,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), an uncommitted superdelegate. Doyle said that could be overcome, adding that 2000 nominee Al Gore and 2004 nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) both won Pennsylvania and both had similar problems.
Doyle said Clinton still has a path to win the nomination but must keep winning and take the overall popular vote.
Doyle said he didn’t see any particular pressure to end the race now. “It’s going to be six more weeks, and then it’s done,” he said, adding that there is plenty of time to unify the party before November.
“If we settle this in June, it will be a love-fest and nobody will even remember this in August,” he said.
But several Democrats urged the candidates to elevate the campaign rhetoric to avoid lasting damage to the eventual nominee.
“I am concerned about the tone of the campaign,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who is uncommitted. “I hope the candidates would keep it positive.”
Hoyer, along with many other Members, expressed disappointment that the race had become preoccupied with “inconsequential” statements and side issues rather than the big issues that affect voters.
Hoyer added that the tone of the campaign probably isn’t much different from other presidential campaigns but warned of the potential to offend significant blocs of the party, such as African-Americans and women.
Hoyer said his decision will come down to who he thought would be the strongest candidate.
“I am not committed, but I am committed to winning in November,” Hoyer said.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) warned that the sharpened attacks between the two could hurt the party’s chances downballot.
“If there’s a continuation of the negative tone of the campaign, it will come back to haunt us in the fall and hurt our candidates,” he said.
“I think both candidates are being told to calm down,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a Clinton supporter who said he’s troubled by the tone. Frank said he didn’t think the split had hurt the party yet but could if it continues for another couple of months.
“I wish the superdelegates would decide tomorrow,” he said.
House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), another Clinton supporter, also lamented some of the smaller issues that have dominated the campaign. “When you bog down on whether one wears a flag pin, that’s not what we need to be doing,” she said. Slaughter added that she thought the race could be over soon. “I think it will basically be over after North Carolina.”
Clinton picked up Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), who praised her as the strongest on fiscal policy. “We’ve got to have a pragmatist,” he said, although he added that either could win his state.
“I would have hoped it would be resolved by now because I never like seeing Democrats fight each other,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who remains undecided. Waxman said he thought the competition will ultimately make the party’s nominee stronger “because they will know how to fight.”
Obama backers said it’s hard to see any scenario that can result in a Clinton win, particularly without doing long-term damage to the party and turning off African-Americans and young voters.
“This is like ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama backer. Davis said that unless Clinton wins in North Carolina, where Obama has double-digit leads in the polls, Obama will continue to hold sizable leads in the popular vote and delegates, and be the likely nominee.
“When you are six games back in late September, you can’t split a series with the first-place team. You need a sweep,” Davis said.
“The Clinton campaign has made the decision that they can’t beat Obama on the merits, and they are running a scorched-earth campaign,” Davis said. “There is no question the tone of this campaign is making John McCain stronger.”