A Democratic Party riven by the long primary season took another step toward unity Thursday, as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton sat down in Harlem for a takeout lunch and an extended conversation aimed at forging a new alliance.
Obama’s lunch date with the former president marked the first time the two men have sat down for a one-on-one discussion since the presidential campaign began.
During the primaries, plenty of venom spewed from the two camps, but those on both sides say all is forgiven, if not entirely forgotten. Clinton is set to campaign for Obama in Florida on Sept. 29. He will also raise money for the Democratic nominee and make other campaign stops through election day.
In a brief exchange with reporters in Clinton’s office on West 125th Street, the former president said: “I’ve agreed to do a substantial number of things -- whatever I’m asked to do.”
Asked his opinion of the race, Clinton said: “I predict that Sen. Obama will win and win handily.”
Obama jumped in: “There you go. You can take it from the president of the United States. He knows a little something about politics.”
Before they began their lunch of grilled chicken and vegetables, Clinton was overheard telling Obama about the framed photographs displayed on his coffee table. The moment seemed far from the rancor of the primary season.
Early in the year, as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s nomination chances dimmed, her husband’s frustration mounted, and at one point he accused the Obama forces of doing a “hit job” on him.
Obama aides bristled over Bill Clinton’s campaign tactics. As South Carolina voters turned against his wife, Clinton seemed to marginalize Obama’s candidacy when he noted that Jesse Jackson had also won the state 20 years before.
Both sides have taken steps to salve lingering wounds.
With Hillary Clinton defeated, Obama has made adjustments, carving out time in his basic speech to showcase her husband’s record. Speaking at a high school in Lebanon, Va., on Tuesday, Obama made a point of telling the crowd: “When Bill Clinton was president, the average family income went up $7,500.”
Deploying Bill Clinton on the trail can be double-edged. In 2000 the Al Gore campaign was reluctant to send him out, fearing he might alienate undecided voters. At the time, the Monica Lewinsky scandal was fresh enough that the Gore team worried Clinton might scare off as many voters as he attracted.
Bob Shrum, a top advisor to Gore’s 2000 campaign, said in an interview: “Look, in 2000 he had a generally unfavorable rating with swing voters and undecided voters in the battleground states.”
Conditions are different now, Shrum said. “This is not 2000. . . . Circumstances have changed, and perceptions have changed,” he said. “I don’t see what the downside is.”
Yet when it’s Clinton, there are always risks. He is a less disciplined campaigner these days, lashing out at reporters when he dislikes a question and rarely passing up a chance to talk about his post-presidential work and past accomplishments.
Still, Obama supporters say they are eager to have him in the fold.
Dick Harpootlian is a former South Carolina Democratic chairman and Obama backer who clashed with the former president during the primaries, calling the Clinton team’s tactics “reprehensible.” Now Harpootlian is over it. “In the heat of battle, all of us become advocates and emotionally charged,” he said. “But I welcome him to the campaign trail. I welcome him to South Carolina. And I think he can be very effective in many of those states he carried in 1992.”
Hillary Clinton campaigned in Florida for Obama earlier this week. Once Bill Clinton hits the Sunshine State, both halves of the Clinton marriage will have stumped for Obama in the crucial battleground state with 27 electoral votes.
An aggregate of public polls in Florida shows Republican nominee John McCain with a 3-percentage-point edge.