Fight for White House Round 1: Clinton vs. Obama

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama came out swinging in the first round of the long race for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Photo courtesy
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama came out swinging in the first round of the long race for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Photo courtesy

by Jake Tapper, ABC News

The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses may be 10 months away, but the bitter sniping between Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., is indicative of just how competitive the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has become.

And, sensing an opening, other Democrats also have begun entering the fray.

This morning, for example, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said on NBC's "Today" show: "I think it's awfully early for that sort of sniping back and forth."

Edwards added that he wanted to run a "positive campaign," his pledge coming despite the fact that his is arguably the most in-your-face and aggressive campaign of all the Democrats, with constant insinuations that Clinton is not being honest when she refuses to call her vote to authorize use of force in Iraq a "mistake."

Calling the Clintons Liars

The Clinton-Obama dust-up began when media mogul David Geffen, a producer of "Cats" and "Dreamgirls," woke up the Clinton campaign with catty comments to columnist Maureen Dowd in Wednesday's New York Times.

After throwing Obama a big fundraiser Tuesday, Geffen lashed out at Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton, telling the Times, "Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease. It's troubling."

Geffen slammed the New York senator as uberambitious and polarizing, and he went after the former president's personal life, calling him "a reckless guy" and speculating that he hadn't changed much since the Monica Lewinsky days.

The Clinton campaign struck back by slamming Obama, insinuating that he was being hypocritical for tolerating Geffen's comments while campaigning as a positive candidate who seeks to unite the nation.

"He decries the politics of 'slash and burn,' and yet his chief supporters in California are engaged in the politics of slash and burn," said Howard Wolfson, Clinton's spokesman.

The Obama campaign pushed back, saying, "The Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when he was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln Bedroom."

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs called it "ironic" that earlier in the week Clinton had "lavishly praised" state Sen. Robert Ford, D-S.C., who said if Obama were the nominee he would drag down Democrats nationwide because "he's black." Ford is also black.

Both campaigns seemed willing to peddle misinformation. The Obama campaign could not provide any evidence that Clinton had "lavishly praised" Ford, and of course Ford has apologized for his remarks and Clinton has distanced herself from them.

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, erroneously referred to Geffen as Obama's "finance chair," when in fact that is not his title and he has no official role with the campaign. The Clinton campaign has also alleged that "supporters" of Obama are besmirching the Clintons, though Geffen is the only one whom it has identified.

Clinton Applauded in Nevada

Either way, the controversy quickly worked its way up to the candidates themselves. At a candidates' forum in Carson City, Nev., moderated by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, Clinton was loudly applauded after she criticized Obama.

"I want to run a very positive campaign, and I sure don't want Democrats or the supporters of Democrats to engaging in the politics of personal destruction," Clinton said at the forum.

Other candidates also got into the act. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said that he thought Obama should denounce Geffen's comments and that all the Democrats should take a positive campaign pledge.

"I think if we're going to win we have to be positive," Richardson said. "I think these name-callings are not good."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said he'd sign on to Richardson's pledge.

But Wednesday evening in Des Moines, Iowa, Obama said he shouldn't have to apologize.

"It's not clear to me why I would be apologizing for someone else's remarks," Obama said. "My sense is Mr. Geffen may have differences with the Clintons. That really doesn't have anything to do with our campaign."

Obama reiterated that he only had respect for Clinton.

Was There a Winner?

So who won the early political sparring? Bloomberg columnist Margaret Carlson says Obama.

"By picking an unnecessary fight, Clinton reminded the public of what a hard customer she can be: her secret health-care task force that produced a 1,300-page proposal dead on arrival on Capitol Hill; her decision not to turn over Whitewater documents; the difficulty finding the Rose law firm billing records; her refusal to let her husband settle the Paula Jones lawsuit when he had the chance," Carlson wrote.

"What Clinton needs to prove is not the 'firmness' and 'resolve' her aides keep talking about but that she's human," Carlson wrote.

But writing in Slate, John Dickerson said Clinton clearly had "won this round. ... The Clinton team got exactly what they hoped for. ... The response from the Obama campaign was good, old-fashioned hardball. You call me a hypocrite, and I'll respond by raising something out of your ugly past. But that wasn't the way Obama has said he'll play the game."

Dickerson said the Clinton team looked "a little thin-skinned," but "they'll take the rap for being thin-skinned if they can show their opponent to be a hypocrite."

Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and ABC News consultant, doesn't think this back-and-forth will help Obama's or Clinton's White House run.

"These candidates must pace themselves," Brazile said. "The last thing we need on the Democratic side is to press the self-destruction button."

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Posted by R. Smith, KTRE-TV