CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—They're at it again.
A civil discussion Monday evening at Harvard University about the 2008 presidential campaign broke into a heated confrontation over Iraq between the top strategists for Democratic candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Clinton adviser Mark Penn lashed out at Obama's claims to be the only candidate who opposed the now-unpopular Iraq war. Penn said Obama once appeared to side with President Bush on the war, then stayed mute on it once he was in the Senate.
Obama strategist David Axelrod criticized Penn's attack as slash-and-burn politics. "Are we going to spend 10 months savaging each other, or are we going to try to lift this country up," Axelrod said.
It was the second heated exchange between the two leading Democratic camps in these early weeks of the fast-developing campaign—underscoring the high stakes and underlying tensions between the two campaigns.
Just weeks ago, they clashed over Hollywood mogul David Geffen's harsh comments about Clinton, D-N.Y. A former Clinton supporter, Geffen now supports Obama, D-Ill.
Monday's confrontation came at the end of a 90-minute discussion by managers of three Democratic campaigns before students at Harvard's Institute of Politics. The strategist for former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Jonathan Prince, sat silently between the two others as they squared off.
Penn started it when a student asked him to defend Clinton's 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war. He repeated Clinton's explanation that she takes responsibility for the vote but won't apologize for it because Bush mishandled the authority Congress gave him. Penn said voters should look not at the past but to the future, and how candidates would end the war.
Then he turned on Obama, whose campaign emphasizes that he opposed the war in 2002 while a member of the Illinois Senate.
Penn said Obama told reporters at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that there wasn't any difference between him and Bush on the war at that point. He quoted Obama as saying he didn't really know how he would've voted on the 2002 war resolution because he didn't have access to the same intelligence as members of the Senate did.
"When he got to the Senate," Penn added, "he didn't give a speech for over a year on Iraq, while Senator Clinton gave six."
Axelrod called that misleading.
Obama was the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. As such, he was pressed to reconcile his opposition to the 2002 war resolution with the yes votes by both Democratic nominees, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Edwards.
Axelrod said that Obama put it this way in 2004: "Look, I wasn't in the Senate. I don't know what they were looking at. But what I was looking at told me that this was the wrong war, that it wasn't justified, and that it would lead to a quagmire."
In fact, however, Obama told The Chicago Tribune in 2004 that "there's not that much difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who's in a position to execute."
The two campaign strategists characterized their clash differently. Penn cast it as a choice over the campaigns' focus.
"Is this election going to turn on what happened in 2002 or about the future?" he said.
Axelrod said the argument showed differences of character.
"It is important, if we're going to run the kind of campaign that will lift our party and will move our party forward, that we do it in an honest way," Axelrod said. "That was not an honest way."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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