The New York Times; by Patrick Healy; May 1, 2008
LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Pumped up and focused, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is putting in 16-hour days in Indiana this week as if she — and not her embattled rival, Senator Barack Obama — needs a campaign-changing moment in Tuesday’s primary here.
In fact, Indiana is a must-win state for her. Not only is Mrs. Clinton behind in accumulating presidential delegates, she now also faces a new test: Showing that she can seize the opportunity, created by the public fracas between Mr. Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., to win over a cross-section of Democrats in this broadly representative state.
With Mr. Obama politically bruised by his former pastor, the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on Tuesday are perhaps the best chance yet for Mrs. Clinton to prove that she is the stronger general-election candidate. To that end, she appeared on Fox News on Wednesday to try to broaden her electoral reach, and tweaked Mr. Obama for taking so long to break with Mr. Wright.
“I think he made his views clear, finally, that he disagreed, and I think that’s what he had to do,” Mrs. Clinton said of Mr. Obama’s denunciation of the pastor on Tuesday.
Going further than she ever has before, she also called Mr. Wright’s comments — including the suggestion that the United States has committed terrorism — “outrageous and offensive” and “so far out it is hard to even understand and take seriously.”
Polls show the Indiana race to be a statistical dead heat.
While Clinton advisers say that Mrs. Clinton needs to carry the state to start trying to catch up with Mr. Obama’s lead in delegates, some political analysts said that even a virtual tie would be a setback because it would show she could not beat Mr. Obama when he was struggling.
“For any of this to matter for her, she has to win Indiana,” said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic communications consultant who supports Mr. Obama but is not working for him. Referring to Mr. Obama, he added, “The political winds sailing at his back are incredibly powerful.”
On Wednesday, however, Mr. Obama was not able to shift smoothly back to his priorities, jobs and pocketbook concerns — two issues that Mrs. Clinton has been mining in Indiana and North Carolina since Monday while he has been distracted by Mr. Wright.
Mr. Obama visited with workers, toured a factory, held a town-hall-style meeting, and announced new endorsements from three superdelegates (Mrs. Clinton announced two). Yet as the day unfolded, the Wright matter cast a long shadow.
At his town-hall-style meeting, where the focus was supposed to be on economic worries of voters, the first question from the audience was about high gasoline prices — and the second was about “how much of a toll” the Wright issue had taken on Mr. Obama.
“The situation with Reverend Wright was difficult, I won’t lie to you,” said Mr. Obama, who again denounced his former pastor’s remarks. “It’s important for the American people to know who I am, what my values are, and what I stand for. And I don’t stand for some of the things that Reverend Wright said.”
As the campaign dispatched supporters and surrogates in hope of containing any political damage, Mr. Obama was joined in Indiana by his wife, Michelle. The couple also conducted network and local television interviews, trying to regain control of their political message.
“What we want to do now,” Mr. Obama said, “is to make sure that this doesn’t continue to be a perpetual distraction.”
At least this week, the distraction has been not only perpetual but potentially damaging.
Some superdelegates — the party leaders who will help decide the nomination — said on Wednesday that the Wright controversy had indeed raised questions about Mr. Obama’s strengths as a possible nominee.
Chris Redfern, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, who is uncommitted, said Mr. Obama’s delay in responding to Mr. Wright might have hurt his standing with many voters — in particular, so-called Reagan Democrats who live in places like Toledo.
“Now is not a time to parse statements, now is not a time to worry about what happened 10 or 15 years ago or whether Reverend Wright was a great pastor or spiritual adviser,” he said. “Now is the time to turn your back on Reverend Wright.”
Other delegates interviewed seemed split over the candidate’s efforts at damage control.
“If he wins North Carolina, particularly by a decent margin, and if he is successful or close in Indiana, I think that will go a long way to erasing any remaining doubt about him among superdelegates,” said Gordon Fischer, a top Iowa Democrat who supports Mr. Obama.
Representative Baron P. Hill, an Indiana Democrat and a superdelegate, was one of the new supporters for Mr. Obama announced on Wednesday. He said Mr. Obama’s denunciation of Mr. Wright had impressed him as “a strength of character and commitment to our nation that transcends the personal.”
Mr. Hill’s endorsement could be particularly potent because his district is more conservative and potentially a swing area in the general election. Because of his influence, Mr. Hill immediately found himself under fire by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which issued a statement calling the endorsement “an affront to Indiana voters” given Mr. Obama’s relatively liberal voting record.
In another sign of trouble for Mr. Obama, he and Mr. Wright also became central figures in a television commercial in a Mississippi Congressional race. On Wednesday, Greg Davis, a Republican candidate for the First Congressional District seat in North Mississippi, broadcast an advertisement trying to link his Democratic rival, Travis Childers, to Mr. Obama and his former pastor. They are facing one another in a runoff election on May 13.
“Travis Childers — he took Obama’s endorsement over our conservative values,” the advertisement says. “Conservatives can’t trust Travis Childers.”
The commercial prompted the Democratic candidate to distance himself from Mr. Obama. The race, Mr. Childers said, “is not about a senator from Illinois or a pastor from Chicago.”
Such developments have privately delighted Clinton advisers. For months they had been talking up Mr. Wright with superdelegates, but this week they eased off and displayed a lighter touch — in part because the Wright-Obama dynamic has grown so toxic that top Democrats, including the superdelegates who will help decide the nomination, are bringing it up themselves.
Clinton advisers have not held a bash-Obama conference call for a week now — after months when they held near-daily calls with reporters to pounce on Mr. Obama about everything, including Mr. Wright.
Mr. Gerstein and others said Mrs. Clinton had handled the Obama-Wright mess extremely well, saying nothing to take the spotlight away from the controversy and staying focused on her messages about job creation and high gasoline prices — two matters of strong interest here.
“She has handled this nicely and is well positioned for Indiana, which is important,” said former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, who is neutral in the race.