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THE NATION

Obama acts to check campaign memo's fallout

The missive he calls `stupid' poked fun at Clinton's ties with India.

June 19, 2007|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama scrambled Monday to soothe hurt feelings among some of his strongest supporters after they complained that a memo distributed by his presidential campaign was offensive to Indian Americans.

Obama telephoned several Indian American activists to express his regret for the memo, which poked fun at the ties between India and his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. He told the Des Moines Register editorial board that the document was "stupid" and "caustic." And in a letter widely distributed to Indian American supporters, Obama said their hard feelings were "justified."

"Our campaign made a mistake," he wrote. "Although I was not aware of the contents of the memo prior to its distribution, I consider the entire campaign -- and in particular myself -- responsible for the mistake."

The memo, headlined, "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)'s Personal Financial and Political Ties to India," was prepared by Obama's opposition research department and distributed to reporters last week in exchange for a promise that they not reveal where it came from, a common practice by campaigns. The memo documented relationships between Indian Americans and Clinton, and noted that her husband, former President Clinton, had accepted speaking fees from Cisco, a firm that has been criticized for moving U.S. jobs to India. It noted Sen. Clinton's ties to a consulting firm that assists U.S. companies in moving jobs to India and other countries.

The reference to the northern Indian state of Punjab alluded to comments in which Clinton joked with guests at a 2006 fundraiser held by an Indian American supporter that her popularity meant she could "certainly run for the Senate seat in Punjab and win easily."

The memo, which became public after it was obtained by the Clinton campaign, drew criticism from Indian American groups who complained that it played on stereotypes. One group with close ties to Obama's campaign, South Asians for Obama, posted a scathing note on its website late Sunday saying its members were "shocked and dismayed."

"The main thing people have a problem with is the implication that having ties to the Indian American community, that fundraising from Indian Americans in the United States, is a problem," group spokesman Dave Kumar said. "It goes against the inclusive nature of the campaign."

The memo was notable because Obama had premised his candidacy on rising above the "slash and burn politics that have become the custom in Washington."

The flap was the latest in a series of missteps by Obama's campaign as the first-term senator and former Illinois state senator, in challenging Clinton, attempts to overtake a savvy candidate backed by one of the most potent national political machines in history.

Kumar said his group was satisfied that Obama was genuinely upset about the memo's content and caught unawares by its distribution. By late Monday, the Obama letter was posted on the group's website.

The controversy foreshadowed potential complications for both him and Clinton on a major debate unfolding in the Democratic primary: outsourcing of U.S. jobs.

As both candidates seek to raise money from influential Indian Americans and U.S. firms that have moved jobs abroad, both also are wooing support from labor unions that are demanding protections against further efforts to shift jobs overseas.

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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