Trying to Heal a Rift in New Hampshire
By Alec MacGillis
Three New Hampshire Democratic leaders who signed a letter two days before the state's primary at the request of Hillary Clinton's campaign, attacking Barack Obama as soft in his support for abortion rights, are asking Obama supporters in the state to put the rifts of the primary campaign behind them and praising Obama for being "strongly pro-choice."
Of the two dozen prominent women who signed the critical letter, e-mailed by the Clinton campaign to a list of supporters and undecided voters, three have now signed their names to another missive asking abortion rights supporters in the state to come together and take comfort in the fact that all of the Democratic presidential candidates are firmly pro-choice. One of the three Clinton supporters went even further, saying in an interview Thursday that signing the letter attacking Obama was a "mistake."
Katie Wheeler, a former state senator, said the Clinton campaign had not given her background information about Obama's record on abortion rights when it asked her to sign the letter calling him weak on the issue, and said that, as a result, she did not understand the context of the votes that the letter was attacking him over.
"It should never have gotten to the point where anyone thought Obama was not pro-choice," said Wheeler, a founder of the New Hampshire chapter of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "I don't think the Clinton campaign should have done that. It was divisive and unnecessary...I think it was a mistake and I've spoken to the national [Clinton campaign] and told them it caused problems in New Hampshire, and am hoping they won't do it again."
The new letter and comments by Wheeler are the latest twist in a back-and-forth that Obama supporters believe did real damage to his campaign in the final days in New Hampshire, though Wheeler said she doubted that the e-mail had that much impact in the final day of the race. "I don't think this one thing would sway people," she said.
Nonetheless, the conflict over Obama's "present" -- rather than "yes" or "no" -- votes on abortion bills in the Illinois legislature has left behind such deep divisions among the state's Democrats that some Obama supporters vowed, in the wake of her come-from-behind N.H. win, not to vote for Clinton, should she become the party's nominee.
The e-mail arrived in selected New Hampshire in-boxes shortly after a postcard from the Clinton campaign that attacked Obama for being "unwilling to take a stand for choice" was mailed to homes.
"The difference between Hillary's repeatedly standing up strong on choice and Obama's unwillingness to vote 'yes' or 'no' is a clear contrast, and we believe the voters in New Hampshire deserve to know this difference," the e-mail stated. "We support Hillary Clinton because she never ducked when choice was at stake."
The Clinton campaign has made the same charge repeatedly over the past year, including a couple weeks before the Iowa caucus. The Obama campaign had rebuffed it by invoking statements by an Illinois Planned Parenthood official, who said the "present" votes were part of a deliberate strategy to protect other pro-choice legislators, other than Obama, in vulnerable districts.
But the fresh New Hampshire attack arrived much closer to election day, leaving the Obama forces scrambling to respond by rushing out an automated phone call on the evening of Jan. 6, two days before the vote. On primary day, Clinton won by two percentage points after trailing in the final polls by as much as 10 percent, thanks in large part to a last-minute surge in support from women.
The new e-mail seeking conciliation was signed by five prominent Clinton supporters in the state -- including Wheeler, House Speaker Terie Norelli, and state senator Maggie Hassan, the three who signed the initial attack. The letter, which was also signed by several Obama supporters, states that "many of us...engaged in good faith in the rough and tumble of competitive politics. In doing so, feelings have been bruised and some deep anger has emerged." It goes on to downplay the dispute created by the initial e-mail as "nuanced differences" which should not be allowed to "drain our energy." And it concludes, in seeming contrast to the initial attack on Obama's abortion rights credentials, that "The good news is that all of the candidates within the Democratic Party are strongly pro-choice and we should be proud that our efforts have led to such a solid field. "
In the interview Thursday, Wheeler said she was not aware of the explanation of Obama's present votes by Illinois Planned Parenthood when she agreed to sign the critical letter at the request of Clinton officials in New Hampshire.
"What we didn't know was the circumstances of those Illinois pro-choice votes. Since then we've learned that it was the plan of the pro-choice community in Illinois. These were subtleties that those of us in the Clinton campaign here didn't understand," she said. "I for one did not understand the present votes....I did not know the full context."
Wheeler said she regretted the ill will it had caused. "I'm sorry there was a misunderstanding, and we're hoping to heal divisions that still may exist," she said. "It's a real pity it got so intense, but that's what happens in that close an election. People get impassioned and lose their judgment..It was the heat of emotions in a tight election where everybody cared deeply about the issue, and many of us over-reacted."
The other two Clinton supporters who signed both the critical e-mail and the conciliatory one stood more strongly by the initial one. Sen. Hassan said she, too, was unaware of the Illinois Planned Parenthood defense of Obama at the time she signed the critical letter, that she had only been told by the Clinton campaign that the Illinois chapter of NOW had cited concerns about Obama's present votes. She said it was wrong for anyone to suggest that Obama was not pro-choice, and that she was sorry about the upset that the letter had caused.
But Hassan stood by what she said was the main point of the initial e-mail, that Clinton was the most staunchly pro-choice Democrat. "All of the leading Democratic candidates are strongly pro-choice but I think Hillary's record is unparalleled. I stand by what I signed before the election and don't think it's inconsistent with" the new e-mail stating that Obama is strongly pro-choice, Hassan said. "Everybody's going to interpret these letters and e-mails as they want to."
Norelli, the House Speaker, said she had been aware of the Planned Parenthood defense of Obama's Illinois record at the time she signed the critical e-mail but was comfortable with the letter's attack against Obama nonetheless, noting the concerns of the Illinois NOW chapter had raised about the votes. "I would say that the record is clear that he voted 'present' seven times. Planned Parenthood, some of the time at least, says it was part of a deal. Well, NOW says that in 2004, they chose not to endorse Sen. Obama" because of the votes, Norelli said. "I would say every voter needs to have all the factual information and each individual needs to make their own decision."
As for the new conciliatory note, Norelli said there was no inconsistency in calling Obama "strongly pro-choice" after attacking him on the present votes. "I would take any of the Democratic candidates on issues of choice over any of the Republican candidates. But I would take Hillary Clinton and her leadership on choice over Senator Obama," she said. Norelli said the purpose of the latest e-mail was to help calm the ruffled feathers of the Obama supporters. "We are working to heal any problems that there are among the Democrats and looking forward to working together closely," she said. "They have time to get over it."
One of the Obama supporters who signed the reconciliation e-mail, Mary Rauh, said she did so because she was very worried that the rift created by the primary could seriously harm abortion rights efforts in the state if it was left unadressed. But she said that she remained aggrieved by the Clinton attack and by the willingness of so many Democratic leaders in the state to go along with it, and worried by reports that similar e-mails attacking Obama on abortion rights have gone out in other states preparing to vote.
"We still have battles to fight in New Hampshire and we can't let dirty politics destroy the choice voice here. It's too important," Rauh said. "But for Clinton to do this to the choice community is so appalling. I can't tell you how it distresses me ... how devastating this and how horrified I am that the Clinton campaign would do this. I fear it will happen elsewhere and it's just appalling."
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