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From toe-to-toe to hand-in-hand

CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Clinton and Obama debut as allies, hoping to unify Democrats. But is this a change they can believe in?

June 28, 2008|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

UNITY, N.H. — Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped onto the political stage as allies for the first time Friday, making a pilgrimage to this small town near the Green Mountains in a bid to unite Democrats behind Obama's campaign for the White House.

On a day rich with stagecraft, the two former adversaries embraced before about 4,000 supporters who blanketed a verdant field outside Unity's elementary school.

Obama praised Clinton for her path-breaking candidacy. And Clinton urged her supporters to make Obama's cause their own this November.

But as an afternoon rain shower blew over the field after the two senators finished, the day's events provided few clear signs of what the later acts of this political drama may look like. While Clinton and Obama talked of working together, there were signs that their long -- and sometimes bitter -- battles in the Democratic primaries and caucuses could still cloud Obama's drive for the White House.

And as the two Democrats stood side-by-side in New Hampshire, Sen. John McCain's campaign sharpened its new line of attack that Obama's promise of "a new kind of politics" is not backed up by his record in the Senate, where he has among the most liberal voting records of any senator.

Mocking Obama's efforts to reach out to Clinton supporters, former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift said on a conference call organized by the McCain campaign that the Unity event made her wish Obama had "actually worked as hard to bridge the partisan divide in Washington, D.C.," as he had "to bridge the divide in his own party with Hillary Clinton voters."

The Obama campaign, eager to bring Clinton's supporters into their camp before November, focused on crafting a day to live up to the name of their venue.

Friday morning, Clinton and Obama -- she in a periwinkle suit, he in a matching blue tie -- arrived together at Reagan Washington National Airport for the flight to New England. After a warm greeting in front of the cameras, they sat next to each other on the airplane and shared a black bus befitting a traveling rock band on the 90-minute drive from the airport in Manchester, N.H., to Unity.

The two chatted, an Obama spokeswoman said later, about their reliance on electronic communications and about strange food they had eaten abroad. On the field in Unity -- a town that split its votes, 107 for Obama and 107 for Clinton, in the January Democratic primary -- the Obama campaign ringed the onetime rivals with their supporters.

Democratic partisans filled bleachers and waved red-and-blue "Unite for Change" posters as giant letters spelling UNITY towered above the crowd.

Even the unofficial mayor of Unity seemed to get swept up in the pageant. Before introducing Obama and Clinton, Ken Hall confessed he had voted for McCain in the state's primary. But then he delighted the crowd by announcing: "I may be part of this change."

For her part, Clinton declared the support that many Democrats want to hear more of between now and November. "I know what we start here in this field in Unity will end on the steps of the Capitol, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office as our next president," the New York senator told the cheering crowd.

Clinton -- who, with her husband, former President Clinton, sent the Obama campaign a pair of $2,300 checks, reciprocating a donation made Thursday by the Obamas to ease her campaign debt -- stressed that her mission is now Obama's. And she urged her supporters to join her in helping put a Democrat in the White House.

"We may have started on separate paths, but today our paths have merged," she said, echoing remarks she made three weeks ago when she exited the presidential race and endorsed Obama.

Clinton praised Obama for his public service and his campaign for clinching the nomination. "I had a front-row seat to his candidacy. And I've seen his strength and determination, his grace and his grit," she said.

Obama returned the praise, lauding Clinton and her husband for their talent and taking note of Clinton's historic achievement as the most successful female presidential candidate in history.

"I know that, because of our campaign, because of the campaign that Hillary Clinton waged, my daughters and all of your daughters will forever know that there is no barrier to who they are and what they can be in the United States of America," Obama said. "They can take for granted that women can do anything that the boys can do, and do it better.

"And do it in heels."

The crowd cheered Obama as he asked them to join him and Clinton to tackle healthcare and tax reform, the environment and the war in Iraq.

But amid the applause, a shadow of the closely contested race for the Democratic nomination lingered.

Clinton acknowledged that the race had been fierce. "I'm proud that we had a spirited dialogue," she said, prompting chuckles from the crowd.

"That was the nicest way I could think of putting it."

And although the two lawmakers stepped onto the stage together, they left separately as Clinton quickly stepped down after Obama finished speaking.

Afterward, some in the crowd noted the occasional awkwardness of the event. "I felt the disappointment," said Ella Perry, an 85-year-old retiree from nearby Windsor, Vt., who had backed Clinton in the primary and said she still thinks Clinton would have been the better nominee.

The latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that only two-thirds of Clinton's supporters said they would support Obama; 11% said they would choose McCain and the rest were undecided or supporting other candidates.

Perry, who came to Unity with her granddaughter, an Obama supporter, still wasn't ready to commit to voting for Obama in the fall.

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noam.levey@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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