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Scot Lehigh

A kick in the stomach for Clinton

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / January 30, 2008

SPRINGFIELD
Hillary Clinton was making her pitch in Massachusetts on Monday, while Ted Kennedy was in Washington, endorsing Barack Obama - and offering an unmistakable counterargument to the Clintons.

Appearing at Springfield College, Clinton thanked Richard Neal, Jim McGovern, and Stephen Lynch, the three Massachusetts congressmen who had joined her on the campaign trail. She made no mention of the big prize that got away. But Kennedy's decision to back Obama was a significant setback for Hillary, one she is said to have felt personally.

"This was like a kick in the stomach for two reasons," says one knowledgeable source. "First, because of all she felt they had done for him when they were in the White House, and then because they felt close to him personally."

Politically, Kennedy's endorsement counts both concretely and conceptually.

The long-serving senator is popular with key Clinton-inclined constituencies where Obama needs to make headway: organized labor, the elderly, Hispanics, and less affluent voters. Further, with Kennedy adding his voice to those of Governor Deval Patrick and Senator John Kerry, Massachusetts should become competitive ground for Obama. That said, from the buzz around the State House yesterday, Kennedy's endorsement has also clearly angered many women who are supporting Clinton.

Conceptually, Kennedy's nod is important for this reason. The Clintons have asserted that Hillary's Washington experience makes her a safe bet and said or insinuated that Obama's lesser time there renders him a gamble. But with his endorsement, Kennedy - the very personification of productive Washington seniority - has declared that years of experience in the capital aren't the be-all and end-all in a president.

Although Kennedy had privately registered his displeasure at the way Bill Clinton has campaigned, the Kennedy camp insists those tactics weren't what triggered his endorsement.

Perhaps not. And yet, parts of Kennedy's speech, delivered in an appearance with his son Patrick and his niece Caroline Kennedy at an Obama rally, read like a rebuttal to the former president - and much of the rest like a missile aimed at the central pillar of Hillary's candidacy. Who could miss the message here? "From the beginning he opposed the war in Iraq. And let no one deny that truth."

In Springfield, Hillary Clinton urged voters to ask themselves "the two most important questions: Who would be the best president on day one? And who is our best nominee to get elected?"

In Washington, Kennedy, who told attendees Obama is both tough-minded and a fighter, urged them "to reject the counsels of doubt and calculation."

"What counts in our leadership is not the length of years in Washington," he said, "but the reach of our vision, the strength of our beliefs, and that rare quality of mind and spirit that can call forth the best in our country and the best in the world."

After praising Obama's Senate work, Kennedy summed up with some of the very words Clinton has tried to claim for herself, saying that Obama is "ready to be president on day one."

He then compared Obama with his brother John, noting that when JFK ran for president, he had faced criticism "from the preceding Democratic president," Harry Truman, who had said the country needed someone with greater experience. "And John Kennedy replied, 'The world is changing. The old ways will not do . . . It is time for a new generation of leadership.' "

With that, Kennedy tried to frame the campaign not as experience versus change but as the past versus the future.

In her wide-ranging and well-received speech in Springfield, Hillary outlined her plans on the economy, healthcare, tax fairness, retirement savings, trade, and affordable education. This election isn't about her or any of the other candidates, she said, but about the American people.

And yet, in recent days, Bill Clinton's efforts to diminish her principal rival have made it mostly about him. He has sparked a backlash against his wife's campaign, created unease about the role he would play in her presidency, and muddied her claim to be running on her own merits.

Now, Ted and Caroline Kennedy have capped Obama's strong South Carolina triumph with the blessing of the best-known members of the Democrats' most famous family. At a time when economic jitters might otherwise have placed the campaign discussion squarely in the Clintons' wheelhouse, Kennedy has helped put a breeze at Obama's back.

Make no mistake: This is an endorsement that matters.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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