Hillary Rodham Clinton backed away Thursday from efforts to push her into the No. 2 slot on the Democratic ticket with Barack Obama, as the two met privately to discuss ways to unify the party for the fall campaign.
Obama was stumping in Virginia, a Republican-leaning state he hopes to capture in November, when Clinton’s campaign issued a statement distancing the New York senator from any lobbying efforts on her behalf.
After a 16-month marathon, she plans to quit the race and endorse her rival Saturday.
“She is not seeking the vice presidency, and no one speaks for her but her,” the Clinton campaign said in the written statement. “The choice here is Sen. Obama’s and his alone.”
The two met late Thursday in Washington in a hastily arranged session to discuss bringing their campaigns and the party together, Obama aides said. Neither side gave details of the talks, which took place at an undisclosed location.
“Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama met tonight and had a productive discussion about the important work that needs to be done to succeed in November,” their campaigns said in joint statement.
In another sign of cooperation, Clinton spoke with her major donors and urged them to start raising money for Obama and for the Democratic National Committee, which has lagged far behind its Republican counterpart in contributions. In an e-mail to supporters, Clinton called on Democrats to unite, saying that “the stakes are too high and the task before us too important to do otherwise.”
Her statement on the vice presidency was part of a minuet that has played out over the last several weeks as Obama’s nomination appeared increasingly likely. Some Clinton supporters threatened to withhold their votes unless he ran with her; other Democrats called the pairing a “dream ticket” that would counter Obama’s apparent weakness with some groups, including Latinos and working-class white voters.
Clinton boosters had been operating with at least tacit approval; in a private conversation Tuesday that soon leaked, Clinton told members of the New York congressional delegation she would be open to being Obama’s running mate. Some in her inner circle have talked up the prospect.
In response, Obama has been respectful. But privately, some close to the candidate were not pleased. Other Democrats suggested the pressure on Obama was counterproductive with the party striving to move on from the often bitter five-month primary campaign.
Speaking Thursday on CNN, Obama said he would take his time choosing a running mate. His pick will not be official until the party convention at the end of August.
“I think everybody just needs to settle down,” Obama said. “I think it’s both -- not just in my interests and Sen. Clinton’s interests, but in the Democratic Party’s interests and the country’s interest -- to make sure that I make this decision well. And I will be deliberate and systematic about it. . . . I want to make sure I get it right.”
Meanwhile, Obama continued to fasten his grip on the Democratic Party and its political machinery, dispatching a top aide to Washington to help run the national committee. Obama also announced that the DNC would no longer accept funds from registered lobbyists or political action committees, the same ban he imposed on his own campaign.
“They will not fund our campaign, they will not run our party, they will not drown out the voices of the American people,” said Obama, who is expected to wrestle Republican John McCain throughout the fall for the reform mantle. The Arizona senator cut loose several top advisors after reports of their ties to lobbying and special interests.
In taking control of the DNC, a standard move for the nominee, Obama cast a vote of confidence in Chairman Howard Dean, who will remain.
Many inside the Beltway have blamed Dean for the weak fundraising and criticized his “50-state strategy” to build the party in places where Democrats have struggled. It is a ground-up approach similar to Obama’s; the aide he installed to help run the party day to day, Paul Tewes, directed Obama’s successful Iowa caucus campaign.
With the primary over, Obama continued to gain support. Among the most significant was that of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Clinton backer who has been mentioned as a prospective Obama running mate. Obama was also endorsed by 23 members of New York’s House delegation.
Obama did his part to reach out. He called Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, about courting Latinos, a constituency that supported Clinton in the primaries.
“There are a lot of doubters in the Hispanic community,” Baca said, “and it’s going to be the responsibility of every Hispanic leader to go out and get Hispanics to vote for Barack Obama.”
As emotions cooled, members of the two campaigns continued a series of quiet discussions about joining forces.
For several months, many of Clinton’s foreign policy advisors “had their parachutes packed and ready” to jump, in the words of one. The Obama team signaled it would find roles for many of them, though perhaps not as prominent. An Obama advisor said the policy would be one of “open arms” rather than “you bet on the wrong horse -- bye-bye.”
Obama traveled to Virginia for his first two appearances as the presumptive nominee. He began his day in Bristol, with former Gov. Mark Warner, a Senate candidate and onetime presidential aspirant.
Obama said he chose southwest Virginia because the region is “an example of so much that is good about this country but so many people who have been forgotten by Washington.” It is also, not incidentally, home to many of the working-class white voters who proved resistant to Obama during the primary season.
McCain campaigned in Florida with his wife, Cindy, making brief remarks to the state’s Society of Newspaper Editors. Responding to a question, McCain said he would “do everything I can” to keep the “ugliness” of racism and sexism out of the campaign.
So far, McCain said, most Americans have judged the candidates on their qualifications. “The fact that an African American and a woman both competed for the highest office in this country -- I think it’s something that we should be really proud of.”
Barabak reported from San Francisco, Levey from Washington. Times staff writers Janet Hook, Johanna Neuman, Peter Nicholas, Maeve Reston and Paul Richter contributed to this report.