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Democrats Face Turning Point in Fla., Mich. Delegate Debate

May 30, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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On Saturday, the Democratic rules committee will meet to decide the fate of the delegates chosen in renegade primaries in Michigan and Florida -- a critical moment in the race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Mark Shields and David Brooks examine the Democratic race.
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RAY SUAREZ: A big weekend ahead for the Democrats, but, first, the party’s presidential frontrunner with more explaining to do.

Barack Obama found himself in the middle of another pastor controversy today after video of a Chicago priest mocking Hillary Clinton made its way onto the Internet site YouTube.

During a sermon on Sunday at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, delivered his incendiary remarks, the Reverend Michael Pfleger mimicked Clinton’s show of emotion before January’s New Hampshire primary.

MICHAEL PFLEGER, Catholic Minister: I really believe that she just always thought, “This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife. I’m white, and this is mine. I just got to get up and step into the plate.” And then, out of nowhere, came, “Hey, I’m Barack Obama.” And she said, “Oh, damn, where did you come from? I’m white! I’m entitled! There’s a black man stealing my show!”

RAY SUAREZ: In a statement, Obama responded, “As I’ve traveled this country, I’ve been impressed not by what divides us, but by all that unites us. That is why I am deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger’s divisive, backward-looking rhetoric which doesn’t reflect the country I see or the desire of people across America to come together in common cause.”

The Clinton campaign also released a statement yesterday denouncing Pfleger’s remarks: “Divisive and hateful language like that is totally counterproductive in our efforts to bring our party together and have no place at the pulpit or in our politics. We are disappointed that Senator Obama didn’t specifically reject Father Pfleger’s despicable comments about Senator Clinton and assume he will.”

The Reverend Pfleger, a priest at St. Sabina’s Roman Catholic Church, an African-American congregation on Chicago’s West Side, has known Obama for more than 20 years, since his time as a community organizer. Last night, Pfleger apologized for his remarks, saying, “I regret the words I chose on Sunday. These words are inconsistent with Senator Obama’s life and message, and I am deeply sorry if they offended Senator Clinton or anyone else who saw them.”

Clinton and Obama both are focused on two weekend events expected to move the party closer to deciding on a nominee.

On Saturday, the 30-member Democratic Party Rules and Bylaws Committee will meet at a downtown Washington hotel to decide whether to seat delegations from Michigan and Florida at the upcoming Denver convention.

The two states had their delegates stripped for moving their primaries up early in defiance of party rules.

Then, on Sunday, the candidates will compete in Puerto Rico’s primary with 55 delegates at stake. Historically an afterthought in the nomination process, the island commonwealth has seen both candidates and their spouses visit in recent weeks.

Even though they are U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans will not be allowed to vote in November’s general election because of their territorial status.

A test for both candidates

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
I suspect, if [Clinton] does not withdraw within five or six days, then the Democratic Party, which is already extremely restive, will grow extremely impatient and sour.

RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And I know, David, that there have been -- oh, I don't know -- like two dozen scheduled ends of the primary season, but are we finally there?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: And Francisco Franco is still dead. Yes, I think this week has got to be it. I mean, what we're expecting this week is that, inside that hotel, the Rules Committee will vote in favor, essentially, for Barack Obama and not allow so many delegates to be admitted that would change the momentum of the race. I don't think it would happen in any case.

So what Obama will try to do is make it acceptable and nice, as nice as possible, for Clinton to withdraw.

Her campaign has not indicated that she will withdraw some time in the next week. They've talked about fighting on.

She has a very committed group of people who are extremely angry, who think she's been treated extremely unfairly, urging her to keep going, her husband among those people.

So what will happen is she'll have to make some decision, but I suspect, if she does not withdraw within five or six days, then the Democratic Party, which is already extremely restive, will grow extremely impatient and sour.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, on that 30-member committee, there are 13 public supporters of Hillary Clinton.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: And the rules were written by Hillary Clinton's architect of this strategy, Harold Ickes.

Ray, this is a test, quite frankly, I think of both candidates. It's a test of Hillary Clinton and how hollow or how genuine is her oft-repeated pledge that she will do everything in her power to elect a Democrat in November.

Certainly, David touched on the unleashing of all those protestors who are going to be at the Washington hotel at the weekend meeting there in behalf of Hillary Clinton. They are not there to compromise; they're not there to work out a consensus. They're there to make a case and to make a furor.

And I think there's a certain accountability and responsibility the Clinton campaign has to have for their behavior and whatever they do.

It's a test for Barack Obama. If, in fact, the Obama people gave her all of the disputed delegates, she still would not be the nominee. He's now over 200 in his lead. So it's not -- if they said, "OK, your claim is valid or whatever," she still is not the nominee.

But it's a test, Ray, of whether he deals magnanimously with her and, at the same time, so he does not provide the Clinton campaign with any even fabricated rationalization that they can take this to the Denver convention, that they've been maligned and hurt badly.

And at the same time, he can't look weak. He can't look like he's caving, that if you can't deal with Hillary Clinton in a rules fight, how is he going to stand up to dictators around the globe? So both of them are in the spotlight.

Obama's pastor problems

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think that Father Pfleger in that video that we saw makes a stronger case against the electability of Barack Obama than has ever been mounted by the Clinton campaign.

RAY SUAREZ: David, this week, as we saw in the opening report, another pastor emerged who creates a public relations problem for Barack Obama. A blip or something that may be problem?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think -- well, first of all, somebody should tap Pfleger on the shoulder and say, "Hey, you're white." He doesn't seem to be aware of this.

It's a problem. Barack Obama is running 10 points behind his party. John McCain is running significantly ahead of his party.

And the essential reason Obama is running behind his party is that people aren't sure he essentially has a life like theirs. And there's some element of race, but people want to have a sense that he basically comes from the same sort of culture milieu, would react the way I would react.

And when these things happen, that underlines those doubts. Wright was one; this will be another. And so I do think it is a lingering problem. I can't see it being a cataclysmic problem.

But he's got to show, you know, you're -- this is a suburban country. We go to Wal-Mart. We do whatever we do. I get that. I'm part of that life. I'm part of your life.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it is a problem. I think that Father Pfleger in that video that we saw makes a stronger case against the electability of Barack Obama than has ever been mounted by the Clinton campaign. It raises those kinds of questions, Ray.

And I think that it was the worst possible message at the worst possible time. It was sexist and it was racist both, that message was. And I really do think that, at a time when Barack Obama is reaching out, especially to white women, many of whom are zealous in their support of Hillary Clinton, but who are lukewarm, if not hostile to Barack Obama, it's the worst possible message.

And to bring up that moment in New Hampshire when an awful lot of women identified with her, when Hillary Clinton, in my judgment, having been in New Hampshire at that moment, was very much authentically responding to a human kindness, and then was savaged by male commentators on cable television, I think that was this moment when vast legions of American women voters identified with Hillary Clinton.

And so to revisit that, Father Pfleger did just an enormous disservice. I think Obama, in his own interest and interest of decency, owes her a call and a public apology for what was said in that video.

RAY SUAREZ: Can you do that without giving away some of your presumed power as a frontrunner?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think that particular idea is a very good thing. I think it would be a wonderful gesture. I don't think Obama would lose a thing by it. It would be magnanimous. He would show he would understand the seriousness of it.

Let's face it. That anger of a lot of women, in particular, who feel Hillary Clinton has been completely maltreated by the media and the culture, that is something we all face when we go around the country and talk to people. That anger is real.

And somehow he's got to deal with that, because you just feel it in the air.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one other thing, Ray, and that is that I think that what we now know, from YouTube and the Reverend Hagee, or Father Pfleger, or whoever else, that any endorsement sought by any presidential candidate ought to first begin with the question, "Could I see all your videotapes and hear all your audiotapes?"

And I think maybe the endorsement of a Trappist monk who's taken a vow of silence might be the only one that you really want to seek from here on in.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks, fellows.