By Scott Helman, Globe Staff
Senator Hillary Clinton apologized today for citing the 1968 assassination of presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy as she defended staying in the Democratic nomination race.
Clinton, in an interview today with the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., expressed exasperation at what she termed the "urgency" of rival Barack Obama, his supporters, and the media to end their primary fight, saying her husband, Bill Clinton, did not clinch the 1992 nomination until June of that year.
And then she added: "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."
The comment brought a terse rebuke from Obama's campaign, whose chief spokesman, Bill Burton, said in a statement, "Senator Clinton's statement before the Argus Leader editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign."
The specter of assassination is particularly sensitive in this campaign, because Obama received Secret Service protection last year -- earlier than any other presidential candidate -- and his supporters, citing the shooting deaths Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the same year, have publicly and privately worried about his safety.
A Clinton aide had initially said today that the New York senator was merely using "historical examples of the nominating process going well into the summer," and that reading anything further into her statement was "inaccurate and outrageous."
But after her remarks began reverberating on cable television and on political websites, Clinton used a hastily arranged press conference in Brandon, S.D. to say she regretted her remarks. She explained that, following Senator Edward M. Kennedy's diagnosis with brain cancer this week, the Kennedy family had been on her mind, and that she meant no offense.
"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," said Clinton, who has been endorsed by Robert Kennedy's son. "I certainly had no intention of that whatsoever. My view is that we have to look to the past and to our leaders who have inspired us and give us a lot to live up to, and I’m honored to hold Senator Kennedy's seat in the United States Senate from the state of New York and have the highest regard for the entire Kennedy family."
But Time magazine reported on its website today that Clinton had used the reference before in discussing calls for her to exit the race. In an interview with the magazine published in March, she was quoted as saying: "We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A."
UPDATE: The Clinton campaign this evening issued a statement from the executive editor of the Argus Leader to try to back up her explanation.
“The context of the question and answer with Sen. Clinton was whether her continued candidacy jeopardized party unity this close to the Democratic convention. Her reference to Mr. Kennedy's assassination appeared to focus on the timeline of his primary candidacy and not the assassination itself,” Randell Beck said in the statement.
With three primaries remaining -- Puerto Rico on June 1, and South Dakota and Montana on June 3 -- Clinton trails Obama by nearly 200 delegates and faces increasingly long odds to secure the nomination. Obama is within 56 delegates of clinching the nomination.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.