Representative Jim Clyburn, whose neutrality in the Democratic primary has made him something of a political referee between the Obama and Clinton camps, said on Thursday that former president Bill Clinton's campaign tactics may have long-term damage on his reputation.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, the longtime South Carolina congressman would not, as a member of the Obama campaign has, go so far as to compare Clinton's actions to that of Lee Atwater, the famed Republican dirty trickster. But he did allow the idea that the former president had sullied his image within Democratic circles.
"I think that may be true," said Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. "I mean, he is speaking out this way, taking hits on Obama. A lot of times these things happen. What you say may hurt the other guy but it also may hurt you."
For the most part, however, Clyburn said he was not dispirited by the tenor and tone of the Democratic race. In the past week both the Obama and Clinton campaigns have engaged in a vigorous back and forth over topics ranging from personal (Clinton's ties to Wal-Mart and Obama's ties to Rezko) to policy (health care proposals and economic stimulus packages). That, Clyburn said, is just how campaigns go.
"I think the debate last Monday night, a lot of people said they were bickering," he said. "I don't think they were bickering. They had competing visions about what to do with the economy and health care. All three of the candidates had different ideas about that. And so, I think, that's to be expected."
What Clyburn did find discouraging was the way the Democratic primary was being framed in racial terms. The idea that Obama is becoming the "black" candidate -- whether it is happening organically or pushed by the Clinton campaign or the media -- is something the congressman rejected forcefully.
"There are more white people supporting Obama than there are black," he said, with a charge of emotion. "Now that's a fact. Just look at the numbers. Look at New Hampshire. How many white votes and how many black votes did he get in New Hampshire? How many white votes and how many black votes did he get in Iowa? Now add that to the black votes in South Carolina. There are more white people supporting Obama than there are black people. Now that's a fact."
The populations of both Iowa, where Obama won, and New Hampshire, where he finished a close second, are both overwhelming white. Moreover, Clyburn added:
"Look at endorsements here in South Carolina... John Matthews, Robert Ford, Darrell Jackson, three black state senators. They are supporting Hillary Clinton. I haven't seen a single black state senator come out for Obama. So is she the black candidate?"
But there was one crossing of race and politics which Clyburn felt comfortable wading. Asked if Bill Clinton was, as has become a well-known title, the nation's first black president, the Congressman said no: "Tony Morrison is a poet and she speaks in poetic language. I think she was being poetic when she said that. We are still looking for the first black president."
With the South Carolina primary just days away, polls indicate that Obama is poised for a victory. Perhaps sensing this or hoping to diminish the impact of a loss, Sen. Hillary Clinton left the Palmetto State over the past few days to campaign and raise funds elsewhere. In the days that followed Obama went from sugesting that his chief rival was writing off the state to arguing, in a campaign memo, that she was actually "pulling out all the stops to win in South Carolina."
Asked whether he thought Clinton was trying to mitigate her losses, Clyburn said no, pointing out that she had scheduled events in South Carolina for Thursday and Friday. But he did caution those Democratic candidates who believed they could win the White House while ignoring his home state. "You are not going to win the White House by avoiding demographics like South Carolina has," he said.