On Wednesday night, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy hosted the nine Democratic members of his health and education committee at an intimate dinner in his home in Washington's Kalorama neighborhood. The surroundings were stylish, the food home-cooked and tasty.
And then there was the entertainment.
The gathering included a former presidential candidate, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and a close friend of Kennedy's, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. But the star attractions were Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, two junior committee members who may be duking it out for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination in a matter of months.
The air was thick with ambition. "I don't know why we're here, Bernie," Rep. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) quipped to a fellow senator-elect, Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), as the guests walked into the dining room.
Neither Clinton nor Obama has formally declared a candidacy, but their rivalry is already the talk of the chamber, an amusing sideshow for Democrats and Republicans -- at least the handful who aren't weighing their own White House bids.
Kennedy (Mass.) tried not to play favorites on Wednesday, seating the two superstars on his right and left at dinner. But the dais of his committee will be another matter next year, after Obama joins the panel in January: According to seniority rules, the two are likely to be seated next to each other, toward the end. There they will vie for prominence on major issues such as stem cell research, the minimum wage and college tuition subsidies.
In the fishbowl of the Senate, interactions between Clinton and Obama are frequent and closely scrutinized. During a routine vote yesterday morning, Obama and Clinton brushed past each other on the Senate floor. Obama winked and touched Clinton on her elbow. Without pausing, she kept walking.
The 100-member Senate has never run short of presidential wannabes, but this time, Democrats worry that the clash of titans will overshadow their legislative agenda, leaving mere mortals grasping for notice and potentially compromising the party's efforts to expand its Senate majority.
"Everybody's going to be fighting for oxygen at a very high altitude," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Colleagues say Clinton and Obama appear to genuinely admire each other. So far, they claim to see zero evidence of public rancor. "Everybody gets along just fine," Harkin said. Kennedy described the pair as "extra-dimensional individuals" and asserted in an interview: "There's no sort of pettiness or jealousy that I see. They understand the momentous nature of what the search for the presidency is all about."
Behind the scenes, of course, it's a slightly different story. "Don't tell Mama, I'm for Obama" has become the Obama campaign's unofficial motto. It's a reference to Clinton's nickname as first lady and an example of the conflicted loyalties of many Democratic political aides. Some are talking to both camps about possible jobs in the presidential campaigns. Meanwhile, Democratic senators who are not considering presidential bids of their own are remaining neutral.
Some Obama allies suspect that Clinton supporters generated recent rumors that former vice president Al Gore is weighing a 2008 bid, hoping to discourage donors from signing up with Obama just yet. On Monday, Obama tiptoed onto Clinton's turf, traveling to Manhattan to talk with big-time Democratic donors such as George Soros.
Speaking later to reporters, he made a point of praising Clinton. "I think she is tough, I think she is disciplined, I think she is smart, and I'm not one of those people who believe she can't win," Obama said. "I recognize it's fun to set these things up as a contest between the two of us."
Surrogates do the talking
Clinton has been less effusive. She rarely comments publicly on Obama, and when she does, it's often in snippets. She declined a request to be interviewed for this article. In October, she said "it's great" that he is thinking of running for president. And Democrats credit her for letting Obama and a first-term senator, Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), headline a Capitol Hill media event last year while other senior Democrats grumbled about their nonspeaking roles.
Some of Clinton's chief supporters, however, have been less charitable. John Catsimatidis, a supermarket magnate and Clinton donor, said yesterday of Obama: "He might be ready for prime time, but I think it's too early."
Clinton and Obama were unusual senators from the start. They hired established, high-level staffers such as Pete Rouse, who was chief of staff for former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and took the same job in Obama's office, and Tamera Luzzatto, the former top aide to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), who now runs Clinton's staff.
Both senators maintained low profiles, at least at first, restricting most public activities to home-state events. Despite their megawatt qualities, both were deferential to older colleagues, and both made friends and co-sponsored legislation with Republicans.
Clash of styles
Because Clinton spent eight years in the White House, she is a particular anomaly, escorted through the corridors by a security detail and rarely engaging in hallway banter with reporters before and after votes. On Tuesday, Obama lingered by the elevators near the Senate floor, feeding quotes on Medicare and tax cuts to a gaggle of scribes. Clinton rushed by a few minutes later, flanked by staff members, and headed straight onto a waiting elevator.
"She likes to stand alone," said one senior Senate staffer.
Clinton's colleagues were surprised when she teamed up with former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) on health-care initiatives, and when she staked out a moderate stance on abortion in a prominent speech in January 2005. But her reluctance to hog the spotlight has earned her considerable goodwill -- to the extent that some of her colleagues have speculated that she might become the top Democratic leader someday, should her presidential bid falter.
Obama, only two years removed from the Illinois legislature, initially stirred jealousy among some colleagues for the rave reviews of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. But he earned loads of gratitude and goodwill by campaigning doggedly for fellow Democrats this fall, often drawing the largest crowd of each campaign.
Senators say Obama's explosive rise has startled Clinton and her advisers, who are mulling how to react. With Obama planning a trip to the early-primary state of New Hampshire on Sunday, they may need to decide soon.
"Hang on tight," advised Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), an Obama fan. "They ain't seen nothing yet."