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After months of division, a spirited show of unity

Clinton, Obama pledge to heal party's rifts

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / June 28, 2008

UNITY, N.H. - In a feat of campaign choreography worthy of Hollywood, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama held their first joint rally yesterday in a small town whose name echoed the message they most wanted to send.

"Hello, Unity!" Clinton began, as the crowd burst into cheers. "Unity is not only a beautiful place, as we can see, it's a wonderful feeling, isn't it? And I know what we start here in this field in Unity, we'll end on the steps of the Capitol when Barack Obama takes the oath of office as our next president."

As they reminded the crowd of about 6,000, the little western New Hampshire town gave both Clinton and Obama exactly 107 votes each in January's first-in-the-nation primary - a contest that Clinton unexpectedly won, countering Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses and setting off a five-month, coast-to-coast, and at times bitter battle for the Democratic nomination.

Now, as the two leaders try to bring the party back together, a poll released this week showed Obama had won over a slight majority of Clinton supporters, but more than 1 in 5 said they planned to support the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain - which made yesterday's show of togetherness all the more important.

Surrounded by adoring supporters ringed by a sunlit, wildflower-speckled elementary school field, the former rivals whispered in each other's ear and laughed at each other's jokes. On several occasions, Obama placed his hand on Clinton's shoulder or draped his arm around her. They even wore color-coordinated outfits - she a light blue pantsuit, he a tie of the same shade over a white dress shirt, sleeves rolled up.

The crowd, waving red and blue "Unite for Change" signs in the sultry heat, appeared eager to embrace the sentiment of the day. At one point, after breaking into Clinton's speech with cheers of "O-ba-ma!" they gamely switched over to "Hil-la-ry!" When a supporter shouted "She rocks!" Obama agreed. "She rocks," he said with a nod, as the crowd broke into laughter. "She rocks. That's the point I'm trying to make."

Their speeches were a reminder that, while their characters and styles distinguished them during the primaries, their policies were not so different. Both spoke about ending the war in Iraq and helping families afford healthcare and energy at home.

They also made the same point about McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, characterizing him as an extension of President Bush.

"In the end, Senator McCain and President Bush are like two sides of the same coin, and it doesn't amount to a whole lot of change," Clinton said. "If you think we need a new course, a new agenda, then vote for Barack Obama and you will get the change that you need and deserve."

But after a primary season that left many Clinton supporters angry about perceived sexism in the campaign and Obama supporters ruffled over what they saw as Clintonian ruthlessness, it remains unclear whether the unity effort will succeed. Clinton has expressed interest in being Obama's running mate, something many of her supporters dearly want to see, but it is appearing less likely he wants her for the job.

Clinton wants Obama's supporters to help her repay $10 million she owes campaign vendors, but it remains to be seen whether Obama's big donors will open their wallets.

And, more broadly, it is not clear whether Obama and Clinton can repair the vast demographic rifts within the party exposed during the primaries: Clinton was more successful with white voters, older women, and those with lower incomes and less education.

McCain told reporters yesterday that he can attract some of Clinton's supporters because he, unlike Obama, can work with the other party.

Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H., said the event and Clinton "came off extremely well," but that success could raise expectations among her backers that she should be on ticket. If he doesn't pick her, "you run the risk of alienating that group all over again," he said.

Yesterday's unity rally followed an elaborate courtship dance centered on money. At a Washington hotel Thursday night, Clinton urged her largest benefactors to give to Obama, who earlier this week asked his big-dollar donors to help Clinton retire her campaign debt.

In a symbolic gesture, Obama announced that he and his wife, Michelle, had each contributed the maximum $2,300 to Clinton's debt retirement fund. Clinton aides said that she and President Bill Clinton returned the favor yesterday by contributing to Obama's campaign.

By the time they arrived in Unity, the town of about 1,700 had spent the last four days frantically preparing for the most massive event held there in years.

Ken Hall, the unofficial "mayor" of Unity, who introduced the candidates, joked that residents had been busy spiffing up their lawns and weeding their gardens.

"I also bought a new pair of sneaks!" he told the crowd.

The town, two-and-a-half hours by car from Boston, is so small that those who attended the rally had to park in neighboring towns and were ferried to the event by a fleet of 40 school buses. But the inconvenience did not seem to matter to those who attended; tickets were snapped up over the Internet, and people began arriving seven hours before the event.

Traci Gere, a 43-year-old market researcher from Newburyport, Mass., was buoyant as she waited in a quarter-mile long line to get into the rally with her two sons, Nathan, 8, and Elliot, 5.

"I wanted my sons to be able to see what I think is a very historic moment, when all these people are coming together so we can take back our country and put responsible leadership in the White House," said Gere, who said she supported Clinton and identified with her struggles, but was ready to get behind Obama.

That spirit of unity was not shared by everyone in the crowd.

Laura Smith, 55, a Clinton volunteer and private school teacher who splits her time between Connecticut and Canaan, N.H., carried signs that read "The Democratic Party is a House Divided." She said she planned to fight for Clinton all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, then vote for McCain.

"I think it's important for everyone to understand that everyone's not falling in line for Obama," she said. "There are thousands of us out there, we are communicating on the Internet, and we don't buy his story."

Clinton tried to speak directly to people like Smith, imploring her supporters to join Obama's "to create an unstoppable force for change we can all believe in."

Obama directly addressed the raw feelings among many of Clinton's supporters about sexist attacks, praising her for setting a historic example for his daughters and daughters everywhere: "They can take for granted that they can do anything the boys can do. And do it better. And do it in heels."

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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