Stalwarts for Clinton, in Search of Cartharsis

The New York Times
By JACKIE CALMES
Published: August 25, 2008

DENVER — Susie Tompkins Buell of San Francisco, a prominent Democratic donor, almost skipped the party’s presidential convention this week, but then flew here as it was about to open on Monday.

“I’m going to the convention because I want to see Hillary,” Ms. Buell said in an interview. “I want to be inspired by her, encouraged by her to do what’s going to be the best thing for all of our futures. She’s trying to help us all get through this.”

“This,” of course, is the formal nomination of Senator Barack Obama as the party’s standard-bearer instead of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who remains the first choice of Ms. Buell and many other Democratic women nearly three months after the marathon nomination race ended. These stalwarts are looking to Mrs. Clinton, of New York, for “the catharsis” that she has said the convention could bring.

For many of the women who are delegates and party activists here, and others watching nationwide, the convention’s high point will be Mrs. Clinton’s valedictory Tuesday night, not Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech Thursday. What she says then to promote her onetime rival will tell a lot about Democrats’ ability to unite for victory in November against Senator John McCain, who will officially be nominated at the Republican convention next week in St. Paul.

One thing is certain: It is going to be an emotional ride both for Mrs. Clinton, the two-term senator and former first lady who sought to become the first woman to be elected president, and for the women who so passionately supported her and would be the base of any future run.

Mrs. Clinton’s carefully mapped itinerary here started on Monday with a sometimes-tearful breakfast with fellow politicians from New York. It will also include an event saluting her work promoting microloans for poor women around the world, visits with supporters in numerous state delegations, and a tribute from Emily’s List, the political action committee for liberal women candidates that had helped finance her campaign.

The climax will be Mrs. Clinton’s speech Tuesday, and later the placing of her name in nomination. By Wednesday, advisers say, she will have released her delegates to vote for Mr. Obama. But many will stick with her as a symbolic statement.

“I don’t think that Senator Obama understands how deep this commitment goes to Hillary, and where this passion comes from,” said Ms. Buell, co-founder of the clothing company Esprit. She stopped short of saying she would vote for Mr. Obama in November, but added: “I’m also a very, very devoted Democrat, so this is a very hard situation. John McCain is unacceptable.”

Democrats say they are fortunate that it is party members’ passion for their respective candidates that divides Clinton and Obama supporters, and not ideological differences over the party’s direction. Those differences are harder to bridge, as Democrats found in 1980, when, divided between President Jimmy Carter and the more liberal Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, they lost the White House.

Mrs. Clinton’s supporters say she will give a full-throated endorsement of Mr. Obama, and they note that their differences are minor compared with those between Democrats and Republicans. The aim, said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who campaigned for Mrs. Clinton, is that “Hillary supporters should take their cues from her, and follow her lead” in supporting Mr. Obama.

Still, there are plans for a march on Tuesday sponsored by 18 Million Voices, a pro-Clinton group named for her vote total in the nomination race. And Republicans here are ready to exploit the divide, with Carleton S. Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive and one of Mr. McCain’s economic advisers, seeking to meet with Clinton delegates. Joining the Republicans is a former Clinton delegate, Debra Bartoshevich of Wisconsin, who was stripped of her party role when she publicly vowed to vote for Mr. McCain.

While some Clinton supporters arrived angry, asserting that Mr. Obama had not seriously considered Mrs. Clinton as a running mate, Ms. Wasserman Schultz said that his selection of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware “provided a release valve.” If Mrs. Clinton’s supporters could not have her as the vice-presidential nominee, Ms. Wasserman Schultz said, Mr. Biden has been “a leader on the issues important to them,” like abortion rights, domestic violence and jobs.

Another Clinton supporter, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, said Mrs. Clinton “really likes Joe Biden,” and “will probably throw in a reference to him in her speech” that notes their shared devotion to women’s and working-class issues.

The tensions flowed both ways in the vice-presidential drama. Some Obama supporters, including women, who backed Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas for the No. 2 spot, privately groused that her chances were doomed after Clinton backers served notice that if Mr. Obama picked a woman, it had better be Mrs. Clinton.

“It’s unfortunate as we circle together if we shoot ourselves,” said Ms. Sebelius, an early supporter of Mr. Obama. “We absolutely cannot afford to let this opportunity pass us by.”

Mr. Obama’s advisers say there are two kinds of Clinton supporters that he must win over. The first are those, like Ms. Buell, who are more affluent and educated, devoted to causes like abortion rights and universal health care. As liberal Democrats, they may be easiest to reach when the alternative is a Republican who opposes abortion rights, would probably name more justices to the Supreme Court who feel the same and supports the war in Iraq.

The other, larger group includes older, less-educated, working-class women — and some men — who embraced the populist economic message that Mrs. Clinton hit hard in the final months of her campaign. They are a tougher audience, Mr. Obama’s advisers say.

Jane Quinn, a 50-year-old teacher and Oregon delegate for Mrs. Clinton, said: “It’s not really Hillary’s job to bring the party together. It’s Obama’s job.”

Certainly, the Obama campaign is trying, as are party leaders. Tom Daschle, a former Senate majority leader and a top adviser to Mr. Obama, said that the convention not only featured Mrs. Clinton prominently, but also had more events and speakers geared toward women “than any Democratic convention in recent times.”

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, who zips between news media appearances and visits with delegates, said in an interview: “Women have the most to gain with the election of Barack Obama and the most to lose with the election of John McCain. This is the conversation I’m having with women.”

Ms. Pelosi acknowledged that some women friends were “still unhappy,” among them a neighbor in San Francisco, Ms. Buell.

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