02/22/2007 09:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Turf Battle Drives Hillary and Obama Tiff

At first glance the tiff between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seemed surprising. It sounded petty and petulant for Hollywood mogul David Geffen, a long time Clinton family cheerleader and campaign bankroller, to sucker punch Hillary with the knock that she's polarizing voters. The implication is that she would be a disaster for the Democrats if she were to get the party presidential bid. Geffen clipped Clinton at the moment that he and some other Hollywood movie big shots pumped a reported cool million into Obama's campaign coffers.

Meanwhile, Robert Ford, a black South Carolina state senator, sucker punched Obama with the claim that as an African-American candidate he'd be a disaster for the Democrats if he gets the presidential nod. Ford endorsed Hillary.

Obama and Hillary at first feigned surprise at their surrogate's intemperate cracks. Then they scrambled and demanded an apology from each other for those cracks. Neither one, though disavowed their words or probably the sentiments behind them.

Until the war of the words erupted, the Democrat's two biggest and brightest media stars have been the paragon of personal and political cordiality toward each other in the Senate. They are centrist Democrats that see eye to eye on most issues, and have recently vigorously blasted the Iraq war and claim to have a plan to get us out of the mess. They both claim that their mission is to empower and energize young persons, minorities and women, and break the conservative stranglehold on national political power. Wherever one turns up on the campaign trail, the other is not far behind. They barnstormed in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and California.

And that's the problem, they're too much alike. In politics sameness is a dangerous political liability. The two are engaging in a turf battle for the same voters, that is, the young, minorities, and women. Both are desperately jockeying to find an angle to separate themselves from each other. And at the same time, figure out a way to overcome the X factors that confront them.

In the case of Obama, the X factors are race, and the quiet doubts among some top Democrats that a black candidate can win the White House. In the case of Hillary, the X factors are gender, the resonant Clinton hatred she engenders among rabid conservatives, and the same quiet doubts from some top Democrats that another Clinton can win the White House. Much rides on whether they can convince the doubters in their party that they are winners.

Money is certainly one key to convincing the party leaders that they are real presidential timber. In the past, Hollywood dollars have been a major lifeline of the Clinton's campaigns. When Obama got the blessings of the Hollywood elite, and got them to pony up cash, and pledge to dump even more money into his campaign in the future, he seized a big chunk of the Clinton's hallowed turf. Hillary will do everything she can to reclaim that turf. It's too vital to her success.

Then there's the issue of candidate viability. Geffen took his swipe at Clinton at the very moment that a slew of conservative hit groups announced loudly announced that they had pumped bushels of cash into a pack of "stop Hillary" websites, muckraking pieces and scheduled attack ads on her. They vowed that this was just the start of a freewheeling, no holds barred disinformation effort to sabotage her campaign.

Ford made his disparaging crack about Obama at the same moment that many blacks in some polls express caution about Obama's White House chances. This is not to knock Obama for running. Many blacks are giddy that he's in the race, and win or lose, regard his campaign as a major racial breakthrough. But they are rock solid Democrats, and political realists as well. They seethe at Bush's policies, and they hunger to get a Democrat back in the White House. They are not prepared to toss away a vote solely to make a racial statement. There's also the still palpable affection that many blacks have for Bill Clinton. Some dubbed him the "black president." That affection has rubbed off on Hillary, and she's also done much to build solid ties with black elected officials and religious leaders. Obama desperately needs to muscle in on that turf.

Obama and Hillary must firmly establish that they can bag the king's ransom in campaign funding necessary for a presidential sprint, deliver a much needed shot in America's calcified political arm, and overcome the X factors of race, gender, and party skepticism. Then they must convince minorities, women and the young that they can be effective advocates for their interests, and on top of everything else that they can win. These are mountainous obstacles. In a wide-open, grueling presidential race, with the leading contenders fighting for a winning edge, Obama and Hillary have little margin for error. Expect more Obama and Hillary tiffs before it's over.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006).