Clinton, Obama sharpen their rhetoric

Times Staff Writers

On the way to her win in New Hampshire, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband criticized Barack Obama for spouting “poetry” and “fairy tales.”

The day after, Obama said he was ready to use sharp words to counter attacks.

“I come from Chicago politics. We’re accustomed to rough-and-tumble,” the Illinois senator said Wednesday in one of many television interviews. “We have to make sure that we take it to them just like they take it to us.”

It didn’t take long for the first volley, though it did not come from Obama but from an ally.


Citing a key moment at the end of the New Hampshire campaign, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) said Clinton had choked up when someone asked about her hair, “not in response to other issues. . . . Her appearance brought her to tears, but not Hurricane Katrina.”

An Obama advisor said Jackson, Obama’s national campaign co-chairman, was speaking only for himself. Obama, campaigning in New Jersey, renewed his call for an end to partisanship, saying, “We can’t keep doing things the same way.”

A spokesman for New York Sen. Clinton, Howard Wolfson, called Jackson’s comment “puzzling.” After the 2005 hurricane, he said, “Sen. Clinton went to the gulf . . . and comforted victims of the storm. She worked hard in the Senate with local officials from the region to get assistance to those in need.”

Although Clinton was asked at a coffee shop Monday about who did her hair, she became emotional as she described the strain of campaigning.

Jackson’s attack on Clinton suggested that as the Democratic presidential race turns into a duel between the two closely matched front-runners, the candidates’ supporters -- if not the candidates -- may stray from the relatively genteel tone that has dominated until now.

Already, in the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary election in New Hampshire, the language of the contest was sharpening.

Former President Clinton called Obama’s account of his opposition to the war in Iraq “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen,” and suggested that Obama was too inexperienced to be president.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who trails Hillary Clinton and Obama in polls, dismissed Clinton as a candidate of the “status quo.”


Clinton’s narrow victory in Tuesday’s primary election in New Hampshire, after Obama’s surprise win in Iowa’s caucuses five days earlier, made it probable that the contest will last through Feb. 5, when California and 21 other states hold Democratic primaries or caucuses.

Edwards, who finished third in Iowa and New Hampshire, said Wednesday that he planned to stay in the race until the Democratic National Convention in August. But the fourth-ranking candidate, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, plans to announce today that he is dropping out of the race, the Associated Press reported.

Clinton took most of the day off after a series of television interviews, in which she said her emotional moment, when her voice broke and her eyes misted, had probably helped her win.

“There was a really wonderful moment there where people got a sense of why I do what I do and why it’s so important,” she said on CNN.


Clinton aides said they believed that moment, which came after several weeks of effort by Clinton to “humanize” her image, was a turning point in the New Hampshire campaign. They said she believed she had found a successful style -- shorter speeches, more exchanges with voters and occasional flashes of emotion -- and planned to stick with it.

“I actually think that moment was very important,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a Clinton supporter. “It showed a kind of humanity and real warmth.”

Before New Hampshire, Clinton’s central theme was that she had the most experience of the leading Democratic candidates and was the best-equipped to handle the demands of the presidency.

But after Obama’s victory in Iowa suggested that most Democratic voters appeared to value change over experience, Clinton switched gears. She said she was the most able to produce “real change” and said the New Hampshire campaign had enabled her to “find my voice.”


Buoyed by victory in New Hampshire, Clinton advisors acknowledged Wednesday that a defeat there might have been devastating but said they now felt fresh momentum.

“A win yesterday was a big, big deal for us,” campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe said in an interview. “Obviously, some people would have gotten nervous if yesterday hadn’t gone well, and we would have spent today on the phone coming up with some great story. . . . It just changes the whole dynamic.”

Some Clinton supporters had privately criticized the campaign’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, who had been the leading champion of Clinton’s initial focus on experience and strength. On Wednesday, Penn said the victory in New Hampshire was proof he was right. Voters’ perception that “she had the strength and experience to be president was the reason” that Clinton won, he said, citing exit polls.

The exit polls did not prove his point very clearly, however. When asked what they considered the most important quality in a presidential candidate, roughly the same percentage of Clinton voters cited the ability to produce change as cited experience.


Obama and his advisors said New Hampshire showed that winning the nomination would not be simple.

“One of the useful things . . . that we learned yesterday was it reminds us that change isn’t easy,” Obama told a rally of about 4,500 supporters at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. “Change is hard. Change is always met by resistance from the status quo. There are people who are in power who don’t want to give it up.”

For all the candidates’ talk of change, much of the action came in traditional forms.

Spokesmen for both Obama and Clinton trumpeted what they said were surges in fundraising -- Obama’s from his victory in Iowa, Clinton’s from New Hampshire.


Obama’s campaign got a significant boost when the culinary workers’ union, an affiliate of Unite Here, announced it was endorsing him. The union has about 60,000 members in Nevada, most of them in Las Vegas, the main battleground of the state’s Democratic caucus on Jan. 19.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, in a message to the campaign’s supporters, said he hoped to out-organize the Clinton camp on the ground, using “the same caucus operation in Nevada as we did in Iowa.”

After Nevada, the next big test for the Democrats will come on Jan. 26, in South Carolina, where roughly half of Democratic voters are African Americans, offering another possible opportunity for Obama to rebound.

“It’s boiling down here,” said former state Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian, an Obama supporter. “I’ve never seen so much activity on the ground, of every kind.


“I think South Carolina is going to be a make-or-break state on both sides, Republican and Democratic.”



Times staff writers Erika Hayasaki in Jersey City, N.J., and Peter Wallsten in Washington contributed to this report.