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Gone From the Granite State, But Tactics Not Forgotten

By Alec MacGillis
The presidential campaign has moved on from New Hampshire, but it has left behind it deep fissures and feelings of resentment among local Democrats that some fear may linger all the way until November.

Some supporters of Barack Obama, stung by his narrow loss to Hillary Clinton, are lashing out at a large group of Democratic women leaders in the state who signed a letter criticizing Obama's commitment to abortion rights, a letter that went out by e-mail to many New Hampshire voters two days before the primary.

Other Obama backers are upset about efforts by top Clinton supporters to remove poll observers that the Obama campaign had stationed around the state on primary day, an intervention that the Obama supporters say hindered their get out the vote efforts.

Obama supporter Bill Siroty, a former Democratic chair for the town of Amherst, said the ill will is running so high that it could keep Democrats in the state who supported Obama from rallying behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, should she win the nomination. In 2000, bad feelings that lingered among some Bill Bradley supporters about tactics used by Al Gore in the primary - including misleading charges about Bradley's health care plan - were seen as one reason why Gore lost the state to George W. Bush in November, thereby giving Bush just enough Electoral College votes to take the presidency.

"People are very upset about it," said Siroty. "I've heard one or two threaten they're not going to vote for Clinton at all. Tensions are very high, and it could cause a rift."

Bette Lasky, the assistant House majority leader and a top Clinton supporter who was involved in both the e-mail and poll interventions, said she was sorry to hear about the bad feelings but hoped Obama supporters would get over it. "It's politics, and it happens," she said.

The e-mail questioning Obama's commitment to abortion rights was signed by a who's who of the state's Democratic establishment, which is dominated by women who supported Clinton in the primary. In addition to Lasky, the two dozen on the list included Terie Norelli, the speaker of the state House, Beverly Hollingworth, a member of the state's Executive Council and a former state senator, House Majority Leader Mary Jane Wallner, former state party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan, and Katie Wheeler, a former state senator from Durham who helped lead the charge for Gore against Bradley's health care plan in 2000. Echoing an attack in a mailing put out by the Clinton campaign that arrived in New Hampshire mailboxes the Saturday before balloting, the e-mail criticized Obama for voting "present," instead of yes or no, on several abortion-related bills while in the Illinois Senate.

"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 letter stated. "We support Hillary Clinton because she never ducked when choice was at stake."

The Obama supporters say the accusation, which was laid out nearly a year ago and has cropped up from time to time since then, is unfair, noting that Democrats in the Illinois Senate often voted "present" on controversial legislation, not to duck issues, but as a tactical response to Republican efforts to force Democrats into unpopular votes that could be used against them in the future.

An Illinois Planned Parenthood official backed Obama up on this score over the summer, in response to an earlier round of questions about his record, and Obama has a 100 percent rating with both Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. To try to defuse the e-mail and mailing, the Obama campaign on Sunday rushed out an automated phone call from a New England Planned Parenthood official vouching for Obama -- which the Clinton campaign in turn challenged by saying that the call had gone out to at least two people on the do-not-call list, against state rules.

Obama supporter Carol Moore, a former state representative from Concord, said the attacks on Obama's record seemed to resonate. Many of the three-dozen canvassers she was helping oversee reported receiving questions on their house visits on Monday about Obama's commitment to abortion rights. On Tuesday, Clinton won by three percentage points, after being down about 10 points in most polls the day before, thanks in large part to a late surge in support from women voters. (Her campaign sent out another tough mailing in the final days before the primary, accusing Obama of favoring a "trillion dollar" tax increase on middle-class workers, a reference to his openness to the possibility of raising the $97,500 cap on salaries taxed for Social Security.)

"It is a direct lie and distortion of the facts of his 'choice' record and I believe it did a lot of damage," said Moore. "The women are all very prominent Democrats, many of them in leadership, and it is sickening."

Siroty sent out an e-mail after the primary to other Democratic town chairs and former town chairs around the state expressing his upset over the e-mail and warning of consequences for those who signed it, "who should know better than to sign their names to such a blatantly political piece which contains misrepresentations if not out-right lies."

State party leaders, he wrote, "will argue we should kiss and make up - after all we have to elect Democrats. However, this absolves these people of the responsibility of adding their names to this letter. People need to think first before they add their names to such a letter. Actions have consequences. These people should have thought about the long-term consequences of signing such a letter. Some of these people will soon send us letters asking for contributions to their campaigns and PACs. Did they ever consider that they would be insulting some of the same people they would be sending these letters to?"

Lasky said she had signed the letter because it was her understanding that voting "present" - which is not allowed in the New Hampshire legislature -- was nothing but an attempt to dodge tough votes. She said it "didn't make much sense" to her that Obama's present votes on abortion bills were part of a strategy by pro-choice legislators. As for his 100 percent ratings from abortion rights groups, she said she didn't know what those were based on and how much value they held.

"To me it doesn't show conviction to be present," she said. "He says he's pro-choice, but he doesn't show a whole lot of conviction when you have a chance to vote and you vote present."

Lasky said the letter should not stand in the way of Democratic unity come fall. "The stakes in this election are too high to be risked because of a last-minute letter," she said. "I would certainly not want to attach my name to anything false, and would hate to think that I did that. But that was one letter and one instance. The candidates were here for a year."

Lasky was also involved in the attempt by Clinton officials to remove Obama volunteers who had been sent to many polling places on primary day to check off the names of voters as they arrived so that the campaign's get out the vote workers would know which of their supporters had and hadn't voted. Clinton volunteers and local lawyers acting on behalf of the campaign demanded in Nashua, Concord and at least one other town that poll moderators ban the Obama volunteers from the polls, saying that their presence violated a state law stating that only the state party chairmen can delegate people to monitor the polls.

The Obama campaign countered that that law applied only to monitors who are at the polls to challenge potentially invalid voters, a practice that is usually limited to general elections and which their volunteers were not engaged in. The attorney general and Nashua city clerk confirmed this when they were called about the dispute, saying that the Obama volunteers were allowed as members of the public to observe the polls, as long as they didn't get in the way.

But the Clinton intervention at Ward 9 in Nashua nonetheless persuaded the moderator to ban the Obama observers. And the disputes, which dragged on for hours and grew quite heated, generally scrambled the Obama efforts to keep track of who was and wasn't voting, said Obama supporter Andrew Edwards, a rookie state representative assigned to observe the polls in Nashua, where Clinton ran up a big margin in her favor. Edwards was confronted by Lasky and by another veteran Democrat, state representative and Nashua Democratic chairwoman Jane Clemons, who he said issued a veiled threat during the dispute that he would face a stiff primary challenge in Nashua if he ran for reelection.

"The effect of it was that it basically disrupted our get out the vote operation," said Edwards. "My effectiveness that day [in checking off names] was less than 50 percent as a result of the people who kept coming in" to protest the observers.

Clemons, whose son Nick Clemons managed Clinton's campaign in the state, said she objected to the Obama observers because she said she had been told by the Nashua City Clerk the day before that such observers would not be allowed and that letting the Obama use them conferred an "unfair advantage." In an interview Friday, the city clerk, Paul Bergeron, said this was not the case, that the discussion before the election had regarded volunteers challenging voters, not those checking names off lists.

Clemons denied that she had threatened Edwards with a primary challenge, saying that she simply asked him whether he was planning to run for re-election, which he may have wrongly interpreted as a threat.

Clemons did not sign the abortion rights letter because, she said, she was not asked to. She said she was not sure she would have if asked since she does not know the implication of a "present" vote in the Illinois Senate, as there is no such thing in the New Hampshire legislature.

She, too, hoped that the Obama supporters would get over their resentment. "You work so very hard for so very long that, yeah, there are raw feelings the day afterward," she said. "We try to give people time to get over it

By Washington Post editors  |  January 12, 2008; 3:51 PM ET
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