In a sign of growing anxiety over the Democrats’ bitter nominating fight, a senior senator urged Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday to abandon her presidential bid and cede the race to rival Barack Obama. Clinton rejected the notion.
The recommendation from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont that Clinton drop out came as Obama picked up support from another senator, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, the state holding the next primary, on April 22.
Separately, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean signaled his concern over the tenor of the race by urging Obama and Clinton to scale back their rhetorical assaults, saying they risk undermining the effort to beat Republican John McCain in November.
Dean also urged undecided superdelegates -- the party and elected officials who are likely to decide the nomination -- to pick a candidate by July 1 to avoid an irreparable rift at the party’s August convention.
“Let the media and the Republicans and the talking heads on cable television attack and carry on, fulminate at the mouth,” Dean told the Associated Press. “The supporters should keep their mouths shut about this stuff on both sides because that is harmful to the potential victory of a Democrat.”
New York Sen. Clinton faces long odds in overcoming Obama’s lead in the race for elected delegates and trails the Illinois senator in the popular vote.
But polls show her comfortably ahead in Pennsylvania, and Clinton has suggested a willingness to fight on to August. “A spirited contest is good for the Democratic Party and will strengthen our eventual nominee,” Clinton said while campaigning Friday in Indiana, which votes May 6.
In speaking out on behalf of Obama, Leahy -- and to a lesser extent Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut -- gave voice to a sentiment that many Democrats have been whispering with increased urgency over the last several days: a fear that the prolonged battle for the nomination -- which once seemed to energize the party -- may have begun to do more harm than good.
McCain has been making mistakes, Leahy said Friday in a written statement, but is “getting a free ride on those gaffes, because the Democratic candidates have to focus not on him but on each other.”
“Sen. Clinton has every right, but not a very good reason, to remain a candidate for as long as she wants to,” he said. “As far as the delegate count and the interests of a Democratic victory in November go, there is not a very good reason for drawing this out.”
A complication for Clinton, as she courts superdelegates, is the rocky history that she and Bill Clinton have with many in the Democratic establishment.
Obama portrays her as a Washington fixture, and after 15 years inside the Beltway -- eight of them as first lady -- the New York senator is very much steeped in the capital and its culture. So, too, are Clinton’s campaign team and many of her political allies.
Even so, she and the former president have long had a more complex and difficult relationship with fellow Democrats -- especially those on Capitol Hill -- than might be expected for a couple who have reigned like no pair since Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Whether it was the botched effort to reform healthcare; tough votes on taxes, trade and welfare; the president’s “triangulation” against fellow Democrats; or the Monica S. Lewinsky mess, the Clintons often made life uncomfortable for their party peers during eight years in the White House.
“There’s a lot of feeling among Democrats on the Hill that the Clintons did very little for the party. It was all about them,” said one Democratic lawmaker, an Obama supporter who did not want to be identified in order to preserve a working relationship with Clinton. “We lost seats in Congress, we lost governorships, we lost statehouses. . . . And the whole time defending [President Clinton] through the impeachment process, the entire Democratic agenda got shelved.”
The latent tensions might be just so much psychodrama, or a political footnote, except that Clinton is now turning to some of the same lawmakers who felt used and abused -- along with state party leaders, who have their own gripes -- to help win the party’s presidential nomination.
“It sure would be helpful to her if there was a little more personal loyalty to her in the hearts of those 300 or 400 people who are ultimately going to decide this,” said one neutral Democratic strategist who, like most of those critical of the Clintons, did not want to be identified to avoid angering the couple.
Steve Elmendorf, who was a top lieutenant to former Democratic House Leader Dick Gephardt, was at the center of much of the friction between the Clinton White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill. Like his former boss, Elmendorf is backing Clinton.
“There were definitely tensions,” Elmendorf said. “But I haven’t heard a whole lot of people say, ‘They screwed us on NATFA. They screwed us on welfare reform,’ ” he continued, citing two of the biggest legislative battles of the Clinton years. “I think most people ended up in a pretty decent place with the Clintons.”
Still, Clinton’s hard-edged campaign against Obama has irked many Democrats. Those close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said she did not appreciate a letter this week from Clinton donors objecting to her statement that primary and caucus results should dictate the final choice of superdelegates.
Pelosi was to speak Friday night at the California Democratic Convention in San Jose. Bill Clinton addresses the gathering on Sunday -- and probably will woo superdelegates there.
For Hillary Clinton, Leahy’s move was especially stinging, because the Vermont senator was a staunch defender of President Clinton during his impeachment ordeal.
Leahy said Obama’s lead in delegates appeared insurmountable. Obama is ahead 1,623 to 1,499, according to the Associated Press, and it takes 2,024 to win the nomination.
Dodd, a former presidential candidate, was more measured than Leahy, telling the National Journal on Thursday that Clinton should drop out of the race next month if voters keep rallying behind Obama.
Still, Clinton has previously defied those urging her early exit, with good results in New Hampshire, then Ohio. Many had expected Clinton losses in those states to cut short her candidacy.
When asked Friday in Indiana about Obama’s comment that the race seemed like a good movie that was going on too long, Clinton joked: “I like long movies.”
Times staff writer Noam Levey in Hammond, Ind., contributed to this report.