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Dems Find It Hot Under the Klieg Lights

In one of the first public contretemps between the two Democratic presidential frontrunners, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York is calling on Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to break ties with David Geffen after the movie mogul made a string of comments critical of the former first lady.

"If Senator Obama is indeed sincere about his repeated claims to change the tone of our politics, he should immediately denounce these remarks, remove Mr. Geffen from his campaign and return his money," said Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson.

Over the years the movie producer has given hundreds of thousands in donations to the Democratic Party and its candidates. Geffen gave Obama's Hopefund PAC a $5,000 contribution in 2006, and he gave Obama's campaign $2,000 in 2004, according to FEC records (presidential campaign contribution data is not yet available).

Geffen's comments -- made to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd -- were spoken on the same day that he, along with film tycoons Jeffrey Katzenberg and Stephen Spielberg hosted a major Hollywood fundraiser for Obama.

In the interview with Dowd, Geffen made derogatory comments about Sen. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Geffen said Republicans believe Hillary Clinton is the "easiest to defeat" in the Democratic arena. He also skewered the senator's unwillingness to apologize for her 2002 vote favoring the use of force resolution in Iraq.

''It's not a very big thing to say, 'I made a mistake' on the war, and typical of Hillary Clinton that she can't,'' Geffen told Dowd. ''She's so advised by so many smart advisers who are covering every base. I think that America was better served when the candidates were chosen in smoke-filled rooms.''

Geffen also took a verbal swing at her husband: "'I don't think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person," Geffen said, appearing to refer to the controversies surrounding the former president's private life.

Geffen's animosity toward the Clintons is traced by Dowd to Bill Clinton's decision in the final days of his administration not to pardon Native American activist Leonard Peltier. Peltier had been convicted of the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in the late 1970s. Geffen political adviser Andy Spahn had strongly pushed for Peltier's release, with the approval of his boss.

Since that pardon decision, Geffen has made a number of anti-Clinton comments. In 2005, he said Sen. Clinton couldn't win the presidency because she was too "polarizing," adding that "ambition is just not a good enough reason."

Geffen's commentary and the ensuring hubbub reveals the risks that any candidate runs when wooing high-dollar donors to their campaigns. These extremely wealthy individuals are used to speaking their minds whenever and however they see fit. It is a difficult task for any campaign to try and rein them in.

In publicly blunting Geffen's remarks, Clinton is trying to box-in Obama. Obama faces either to keep Geffen on his finance team and run the risk of watching his reformer credentials tarnished in the eyes of party insiders and activists, or jettison him and risk the ire of the well-heeled Hollywood community.

Obama's campaign didn't shy away from the fight. "It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when he was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln bedroom," said Obama communications director Robert Gibbs. Gibbs also pointed out that Hillary Clinton had not condemned the comments of South Carolina state Sen. Robert Ford. Ford, a Clinton backer, said the Democratic ticket would be "doomed" if Obama was the party's presidential candidate.

Update, 3:26 p.m. ET: Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson issued the following statement today:

"By refusing to disavow the personal attacks from his biggest fundraiser against Senator Clinton and President Clinton, Senator Obama has called into serious question whether he really believes his own rhetoric. How can Senator Obama denounce the politics of slash & burn yesterday while his own campaign is espousing the politics of trash today?

"When one of Senator Clinton's supporters made an inappropriate statement, her campaign disavowed it immediately and the supporter apologized for his words. Why won't Senator Obama do the same?"

Not to be left out of the fun, Geffen issued this brief statement today:

"Despite reports to the contrary, I am not the Campaign Finance Chair and have no formal role in the Obama campaign, nor will I, other than to continue to offer my strongest possible personal support for his candidacy. My comments, which were quoted accurately by Maureen Dowd, reflect solely my personal beliefs regarding the Clintons. Thank You."

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 21, 2007; 12:07 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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