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The Imus Primary

NBC Political Director Chuck Todd says the Imus controversy exposes campaign hurdles for Clinton and Obama.
/ Source: NBC News

Gaining political points in the aftermath of a national controversy is nothing new in presidential politics.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Hillary Clinton's campaign decided to accept a longstanding invitation to speak at Rutgers this Monday, coincidentally, a week after Rutgers University became best known for its women’s basketball program.

What is striking is how Clinton is so attracted to this story and how Obama seems so unattracted. Watching the two Democratic frontrunners conduct themselves this week on the issue reveals a lot about both of their campaigns.

Clinton is coming a bit late to the story. By Monday, media exhaustion will likely have set in. But it will be news nonetheless. What is fascinating about Clinton’s decision to go to Rutgers is that it opens a window into the strategy the Clinton campaign is embracing. She needs to be the woman candidate for president, not a presidential candidate that happens to be a woman.

The thing about the Imus remark that’s been heard ‘round the world is it was as much sexist as it was racist. It’s what made the remark such a death knell for Imus’ career. It didn’t touch merely one third rail of American societal discourse (race) but two third rails (race and gender).

Clinton’s campaign probably wishes they had jumped on Imus sooner than they did because it was a huge opportunity for their candidate to stamp herself as the “woman” candidate.

The campaign needs to capture the moments that can help her become a symbol. If she’s not “the woman candidate,” she may become just another Clinton and that’s not the future, that’s the past.

Now she is still a candidate with a familiar last name and familiar feel. It has got to be frustrating for the Clinton campaign; at one time, Hillary had all the makings of being the new and groundbreaking candidate.

But then Obama happened. He’s trumped her on the unique and different front, defining Clinton’s campaign as the establishment.

Obama shies away
This week, despite the headlines that he garnered, Obama actually did his best to shy away from getting himself too involved in the Imus story. On the day that he was credited with calling for Imus’ firing, he did so only in response to questions from the media. In fact, Obama’s camp only made him available to media questions that day because he wanted to respond to John McCain’s Iraq speech. Obama’s comments about Imus (again in response to questions) trumped whatever he said about McCain. 

(Quick McCain Aside: Is there anyone who hurt McCain more this week than Imus? McCain was hoping to win the weeklong news cycle with his speech to defend the current Iraq policy. But instead, Imus stepped all over McCain. The irony of course is that no candidate was trumpeted more on Imus’ airwaves than McCain. But I digress…)

I have yet to see paper from the Obama campaign since both NBC and CBS announced their decisions to terminate Imus. That’s not an oversight. Obama is a candidate for president who happens to be black; he shies away from any attempt to become THE black candidate for president.

It’s an interesting difference with Clinton. Her best chance at winning the Democratic nomination (and the presidency) is galvanizing her gender and making herself a cause célèbre for women everywhere. Obama’s best chance at becoming president is to do everything in his power to rise above his race.

This is why Obama seems to tiptoe around issues that are so defined by race. He must believe his candidacy has a lower ceiling if he becomes too defined by his race.

Some Democrats have suggested Obama is risking losing a large chunk of the black vote in key primary states if he appears to shy away too much. It’s a delicate line. So far, Obama seems to be walking it well. He embraces being black at uplifting events like the Selma remembrances where folks from all walks of life would be expected to pay their respects.

But Obama stayed as far away from Imus as he could. He could have done every morning show if he wanted to. He could be on every Sunday show on this topic should he choose.  But if he chose to make himself one of the faces of this story, he knows he would also be contradicting the campaign mission he set out from himself, about aiming for a less corrosive political discourse.

This is not to imply that Clinton is taking the opposite tact. She’s also being subtle about her involvement in this story. In fact, I wouldn’t blame her if she were actually gloating a bit about Imus’ downfall. His treatment of her was downright hostile. He regularly referred to her as “Satan.”  So I’m guessing there’s no one happier to see him off the airwaves and unable to influence the Beltway elite than Sen. Clinton.

The Imus controversy provides an interesting window into the challenges both Clinton and Obama face. They are trying to smash their respective glass ceilings. This moment is not make-or-break for either, but it is revealing the type of campaigns each is attempting to run.