By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008; Page A01
MOLINE, Ill., Aug. 25 — In a private meeting with Sen. Barack Obama after she conceded the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made a request: that he consider her for his vice presidential running mate, but not put her through the charade of being vetted if he was not serious.
Obama told Clinton then it was unlikely he would choose her, people familiar with the conversation said. Obama did not want to lead her on and, after campaigning against her for more than a year, already had a sense that their pairing would not be the right fit.
As Clinton prepares for her address to the Democratic convention Tuesday night, Obama’s decision to pass her over remains central to the ongoing story of their strained relationship. It has also contributed to what associates say has been a difficult emotional period for the former first lady in the two months since ending her bid. One adviser described her as outright “depressed” in July, while another said she was “moving forward” and a third said she has simply been trying to get through November before making decisions about where next to take her life.
Clinton has done second-guessing from time to time, they said, reexamining how certain elements of her primary campaign turned out so badly. She has returned to senatorial tasks such as attending the New York State Fair and digging into Congressional Budget Office reports. Twice this summer, she disappeared on vacation in New York — once to the Hamptons and earlier this month to the Hudson Valley. Both trips went largely unreported, the media crush that followed her for more than a year having been allowed to fade away.
“It’s back to business, just not as usual,” Clinton told her staff members when she got back to work, using a phrase that has become something of a mantra for the vastly reduced team.
The question of how seriously Obama considered tapping Clinton for the ticket has become a source of unhappiness for both sides of late. Clinton was never asked for the official vetting paperwork when other potential running mates were. Obama never invited her to have a real conversation about potentially joining forces, although the two spent time together at several events.
Those revelations, coming as the two camps converged on Denver and Obama chose Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. to join him on the ticket, angered many Clinton supporters who felt she had at least earned the right to greater consideration after winning 18 million primary votes.
The arguments against Obama choosing Clinton were evident from the start: Her campaign, rife with internal struggles, bore no resemblance to his tightly run operation; the two had little personal chemistry; and hard feelings lingered after what had been a bruising primary.
Obama advisers said they did not want to raise expectations for Clinton knowing they would probably be dashed, especially after she asked not to be put through an artificial process.
They also said they had far more information about her than they did the other contenders after doing so much research during the campaign. “We spent an enormous amount of money and time and a full-time unit of people looking under every stone. It wasn’t like we did not know anything about her,” said one senior Obama adviser involved in the process. “And we thought her position on this was pretty reasonable.”
At the same time, aides said, Obama did, in fact, consider whether he should revisit the idea of an Obama-Clinton ticket as he went through the selection process.
But in effect, he did not really consider Clinton for the No. 2 spot. Even toward the end of his decision-making process, as he was weighing alternatives and leaning toward Biden, Obama raised the idea of Clinton once more with the close circle of associates helping him make the decision — but ultimately concluded that it was not the correct course. The campaign has declined repeatedly to delve into specifics about exactly what it was that Obama did not feel comfortable with.
People who spoke to both candidates offered slightly conflicting accounts of how their early closed-door conversations went — and some acknowledged that the talks, held in private, may have been interpreted differently by two people who did not see eye-to-eye. Some Clinton allies said she was not as much actively seeking the No. 2 slot as conveying that she was open to it. And people on both sides said it was not clear how forcefully Obama let her know in private that she was not a front-runner, although in public, his reluctance was clear.
On Monday, Obama sought to minimize the issue. “I’ve tried not to have long discussions about short lists, long lists, but I’ve said publicly before and I will repeat again that, you know, Senator Clinton would have been on anybody’s shortlist. And so I took her very seriously,” Obama said in response to a question on the airport tarmac here, during his first question-and-answer session in weeks.
Asked whether Clinton had been specifically on his shortlist, Obama replied: “I think you can draw that conclusion.”
But if Obama thought about reconsidering Clinton, he did not share that with her, and some of her associates said she never had a chance to make the case for how she could help him win. Obama expressed “no interest,” had “no meetings, no conversations, no requests for information, no real consideration whatsoever,” said a Clinton loyalist who talked with her throughout the process.
And so Clinton, aware that she was essentially out of the running, did not dwell on pursuing the vice presidency. She turned to helping Obama campaign where she could, making public appearances on his behalf and raising money for him — before arriving in Denver, where she turned to the mammoth task of persuading her most intransigent supporters to back her former rival.
Obama advisers privately said what the presumptive nominee said aloud: that they were satisfied with her efforts and grateful that she was helping push back against Sen. John McCain, is running an advertisement, titled “Passed Over,” criticizing Obama for not picking Clinton. On Monday, she countered with: “I’m Hillary Clinton, and I do not approve that message.”
Clinton aides said she is genuine in her desire to see Obama elected, and not simply because she is a committed partisan. She has looked for opportunities to help Obama “both because she wants a Democrat in the White House and because she does not want to be blamed if we don’t have one,” one confidante said. “She wants to go above and beyond to ensure that if it doesn’t happen, nobody points the finger at her.”
Clinton is also managing her return to the public eye carefully: She has not done any in-depth interviews and has barely discussed the primaries. That is a stark contrast to her husband, who had angry words about the primaries as recently as July, when he conducted interviews during an annual trip to Africa. Some in Sen. Clinton’s circle said they learned that the former president had begun speaking about politics publicly again only by reading about it in the newspaper, suggesting that the two Clinton operations have drifted apart, back to the state they were in before her presidential bid.
Obama predicted on Monday that Sen. Clinton will deliver “a rousing speech” on Tuesday night. The address has been crafted by a trio of her speechwriters and is expected to “echo the themes of the campaign,” primarily the economic hardships of average Americans. It is not only a coda to her presidential campaign but also a preview of what may lie ahead, as Clinton, in the words of one ally, “finds her niche.”
Clinton has begun thinking about how to harness the support she earned this year and is weighing how to be not only a leader of women but also a populist voice, advisers said. She is likely to write another book. She will stay in the Senate, where she won reelection in 2006, unless another, better opportunity should arise. But there are no signs thus far that she is thinking about the jobs others have mentioned Obama might consider her for, such as a Supreme Court justice.
“She’s emerged from this campaign as an even more powerful force, and she’s going to map out a strategy where she can make a difference in people’s lives,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), a staunch Clinton advocate during the primaries. McGovern, who traveled with Clinton in the final days of the race, said he had spoken with Clinton on a couple of occasions since then and marveled at her resilience.
“In the aftermath of the election, she has been incredible. I’m not sure I’d have the ability to just pick up all the pieces and go on,” he said. “But I think in a way this campaign has been an education for her. She’s come to appreciate that for a lot of people in this country life is tough and they’re looking for a champion, looking for a voice. And people are counting on her and expecting big things from her even if she’s not going to be the nominee.”