Top advisers to Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Democratic rival Barack Obama of plagiarism Monday, the latest effort by her campaign to undermine the Illinois senator's credibility. Obama shrugged off the criticism and noted Clinton has used his slogans, too.
Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson, during a conference call with reporters, pointed to a speech Obama delivered at a Democratic Party dinner in Wisconsin Saturday that lifted lines from an address by his friend, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
The Associated Press reported in January that Obama had borrowed ideas and speech points from Patrick, often without attribution. But with Obama now leading in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination — he won the last eight nomination contests — Clinton's campaign is trying to chip away at the premise of his candidacy. Wisconsin votes on Tuesday.
"Don't tell me words don't matter," Obama told the Wisconsin audience, attempting to rebut Clinton's oft-repeated charge that he is long on rhetoric and short on policy specifics. "'I have a dream' — just words? 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' — just words? 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' — just words? Just speeches?"
Patrick, faced with similar charges from his GOP opponent, used nearly identical language during his 2006 governor's race.
"'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' — just words? Just words?" Patrick said. "'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' — just words? 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' Just words? 'I have a dream' — just words?"
Not a big deal, Obama says
The accusations momentarily put Obama on the defensive and distracted from a tour in Ohio, where he hoped to focus on the economy. He shrugged off the criticism and noted that Clinton occasionally had borrowed language from him.
"I really don't think this is too big of a deal," Obama said at a news conference. "When Senator Clinton says 'It's time to turn the page' in one of her stump speeches or says she's 'fired up and ready to go,' I don't think that anybody suggests that she's not focused on the issues that she's focused on."
He acknowledged trading ideas with Patrick and said they had borrowed language from each other on occasion. Obama said he probably should have given Patrick credit, but said the oversight didn't indicate a pattern of deception.
"I've written two books, wrote most of my speeches. So I think putting aside the question ... in terms of whether my words were my own, I think that would be carrying it too far," Obama said.
Tight race in Wisconsin
The charges came a day before Wisconsin's presidential primary, where polls indicate a tight race between the two. The contest featured the first negative television ads of the campaign — from Clinton, criticizing Obama for refusing to debate her in the state before the primary.
Clinton's campaign posted video clips on YouTube to illustrate the similarities in Obama's and Patrick's speeches. Obama's campaign pointed reporters to video available on the same Web site of Clinton telling Iowa voters "we are fired up and we are ready to go."
Later Monday, Obama hit back harder during a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, turning Clinton's criticism of his speeches into a biting critique of her past support for trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"She says speeches don't put food on the table. You know what? NAFTA didn't put food on the table, either," Obama said, bringing the Rust Belt crowd to its feet.
A day earlier, Clinton's spokesman criticized Obama for backing away from a pledge to accept public funding if he is the Democratic nominee, saying Obama had engaged in a pattern of walking away from promises.
On Monday, Wolfson said the two matters were related.
"If you ask voters to judge you on the basis of promises and you break them, or on the basis of rhetoric and you lift it, there's not much else there," he said.