In this race, ‘tea’ can be a fighting word

Times Staff Writer

Barack Obama has long sought to undercut Hillary Rodham Clinton’s claim that she is the more seasoned candidate because her eight-year stint as a first lady took her to dozens of countries at her husband’s behest.

At a campaign stop in Coralville, Iowa, on Friday, Obama made a comment that caused a backlash from the Clinton campaign.

His exposure to foreign cultures, he said, was rich in a different way.

“It’s that experience, that understanding, not just of what world leaders I went and talked to in the ambassador’s house, who I had tea with, but understanding the lives of people like my grandmother, who lives in a tiny village in Africa,” he said.


The New York senator’s camp took offense -- prompting the Illinois senator’s campaign to insist that no offense was intended.

“It was not directed at Mrs. Clinton,” said Robert Gibbs, an Obama spokesman.

Less than a week before Thursday’s Iowa caucuses, the climate is increasingly pugnacious, with the rival Democratic campaigns rising to virtually any provocation.

On the Republican side, the skirmishes are more direct. Candidates assail one another by name, attack one another in TV ads. But the rules of engagement are different in the Democratic contest. Candidates speak about one another in a kind of code, so as not to be accused of mounting negative attacks. Rarely do they invoke another Democratic candidate’s name.


But when Clinton, in her stump speech, dismisses people who merely “hope for change,” she is clearly talking about Obama. When she slights people who “demand change,” that’s code for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Obama never mentioned Clinton in his “tea” reference. But the Clinton people believe the code was in play -- he was talking about her.

The candidate herself did not respond when asked about the “tea” comment at a campaign stop here. But former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Clinton supporter, came out with a statement disputing any notion that Clinton’s overseas trips were cushy.

“Sen. Clinton has been in refugee camps, clinics, orphanages and villages all around the world, including places where tea is not the usual drink,” Albright said.


The dust-up eclipsed Thursday’s controversy over Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Pakistan.

The Clinton and Obama campaigns feuded over who was exploiting the assassination for political gain. An Obama campaign strategist gave an interview that reminded voters of Clinton’s early support for the war in Iraq. Clinton’s people accused the Obama campaign of “politicizing” Bhutto’s death. Not so, Obama countered.

So it went.

By Friday night, the Obama campaign wanted to cool the “tea” episode. “Speaking of tea, they’re apparently drinking too much coffee over there,” Gibbs said of his rivals.