WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday invoked the June 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to defend her decision to remain in the presidential race until at least June 3 -- sparking a wave of condemnation by Barack Obama's supporters.
Clinton quickly expressed regret for the unprompted reference -- interpreted by many in Obama's camp as a suggestion that she thinks Obama's life might be in danger.
Clinton, who has made similar statements previously, said she was simply illustrating that other nomination contests have dragged into June. Editors of the Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader had asked why she remained in the race for the Democratic nomination.
"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right?" Clinton told the newspaper. "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."
Bill Clinton's nomination was a foregone conclusion by March 1992, although he didn't officially clinch it until later.
Clinton made no direct reference to Obama in her RFK comments. But Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife, has said she is worried that he faces danger as a pioneering African American presidential hopeful. Obama was given Secret Service protection last May, about 18 months before the election -- earlier than any previous candidate.
Clinton's comments came amid reports that Bill Clinton and others were advocating an Obama-Clinton ticket. Both campaigns vehemently denied that such discussions were taking place. But the dust-up over the RFK remarks could seriously jeopardize whatever chances she may have had to be the vice presidential nominee, Democratic strategists and others said.
"My jaw just dropped -- I think she just basically shattered her hopes of being named as vice president," said New York state Sen. Bill Perkins, one of Obama's top backers in Clinton's home state. "To use the example of an assassination, I think, leads one to believe that she may be talking about something unfortunate happening to Barack Obama. Couple that with the other remarks she made recently about winning the white vote and her husband's statements and I'd say something is seriously amiss."
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said, "Sen. Clinton's statement before the Argus Leader editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign."
Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager, Donna Brazile, an uncommitted superdelegate who has been complimentary to Obama, said, "I am numb."
The former first lady hastily assembled reporters to issue a tempered apology during a stop in Brandon, S.D., citing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's brain-cancer diagnosis earlier this week.
"The Kennedys have been much on my mind the last days because of Sen. Kennedy and I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family, was in any way offensive," she said. "I certainly had no intention of that, whatsoever."
Later, Clinton's campaign forwarded a statement from the Argus Leader's executive editor, Randell Beck, who said her answer "appeared to focus on the timeline of his primary candidacy and not the assassination itself."
She has said much the same thing before, including in a March interview with Time magazine.