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Clintons sort friends: Past and present

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has suffered a steady erosion of support for her campaign from the party stalwarts who once formed the basis of her  juggernaut of “inevitability.”
/ Source: The New York Times

Nancy Larson’s most difficult conversation was, by far, the one with .

“It was just heartbreaking,” said Mrs. Larson, a member from Minnesota and more to the point, a superdelegate who had initially pledged herself to Senator . This was last Saturday, after the former first daughter learned that Mrs. Larson would be shifting her allegiance to Senator .

“She is a delightful young woman who loves her mother very much,” Mrs. Larson said. “She was really pushing me. She kept asking me why I was doing this. She just kept asking, ‘Why? Why?’ ”

It is a question many in the Clinton camp are asking these days, sometimes in conversations far less civil than that one. After nearly two decades building relationships with a generation of Democrats, Mrs. Clinton has recently suffered a steady erosion of support for her presidential campaign from the party stalwarts who once formed the basis of her perceived juggernaut of “inevitability.”

Some of it is just business, practical politicians putting aside ties to the Clintons to follow the will of the voters in their states or making a calculation about who seems best positioned to win.

The immediate fallout, with the Pennsylvania primary only two days away, is electoral. Mrs. Clinton has been losing potential endorsers and superdelegate backing from grass-roots activists like Mrs. Larson as well as elected officials, party luminaries and former Clinton White House aides (the most recent being former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who endorsed Mr. Obama on Friday). It is the constituency that provided Mrs. Clinton with an early lead among superdelegates, one she retains although by a narrowing margin.

A very personal testing
But there is something more wrenching at work as well, a reckoning of whether the Clintons, on balance, have been good or bad for the party. It has the feel of a very personal testing of loyalties to a former president who once always seemed to be adding to the “Friends of Bill” list, and to a sitting senator who, if not so driven as her husband to win over everyone, used her fame to help elect other Democrats.

But one person’s “disloyalty” is, to another set of eyes, well-deserved “comeuppance.” And there is no shortage of powerful Democrats who are quick to accuse the Clintons of defining loyalty as a one-way street, with little regard for the sacrifices they have made for a couple whose own political needs seem to their critics always to come first.

This tension was neatly distilled in a heated conversation in January between a prominent Clinton supporter and Cameron Kerry, the younger brother of Senator John Kerry, who had just endorsed Mr. Obama.

In the telling of two Democrats familiar with the discussion, one from each camp, the Clinton supporter, a Democratic fund-raiser with close ties to both Mrs. Clinton and John Kerry, noted that campaigned for Mr. Kerry in 2004, even though the former president had just undergone bypass surgery.

To which Cameron Kerry parried that his brother had agreed to fly with Mr. Clinton on Air Force One after the impeachment vote “when no one wanted to be seen with him.”

'Clinton fatigue'
Either way, the anger felt by the Clintons and that directed at them goes to what many see as deep fractures and unresolved tensions within the Democratic Party .

“There is a lot of Clinton fatigue in the party and in the country today, and many people are reacting to that,” said , a former Democratic leader in the Senate, who is supporting Mr. Obama.

By the same token, “There is clearly a high frustration level among campaign types and from the Clintons themselves,” said Leon Panetta, a White House chief of staff under Mr. Clinton, who is backing Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

It is partly reserved for former Clinton administration aides who are now with Mr. Obama: Greg Craig, who served as special counsel to Mr. Clinton during his impeachment saga; , a former national security adviser; and Mr. Reich, who even before his formal endorsement Friday had spoken approvingly of Mr. Obama and critically of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

“These are people that the Clintons gave an opportunity to serve,” said Mr. Panetta, speaking generally. “They helped give them the titles they now have, and made them a lot of money. I think the Clintons probably feel they are owed something.”

Clinton campaign officials say that given the Clintons’ reach and influence in the party, it is unfair for those outside the campaign to expect all of their past associates to be supporting Mrs. Clinton. “The Clintons have had ties to just about everyone active in Democratic politics at one point or another,” said a campaign spokesman, Phil Singer. “And a significant number of those people back Senator Clinton.”

People in the Clinton orbit say there are a varying gradations of perceived disloyalty. In their eyes, the least offensive (if somewhat annoying) group are “likely” Hillary Clinton supporters who have not defected, in part out of recognition of past ties, but have not made public commitments to her, either. Until Friday, this would have included Mr. Reich, who had said he would not formally endorse Mr. Obama out of “loyalty” to Mrs. Clinton, a friend for over four decades whom he actually went out on a date with in their college days.

Then there are those whom Mrs. Clinton worked hard to win over but who have actually taken the step of endorsing Mr. Obama. These would include newer senators like Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, or older colleagues, like Senator of West Virginia.

There is also a large class of Obama supporters in the Senate for whom the Clintons raised considerable amounts of money. This includes Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who upset Mrs. Clinton in a 2006 appearance on “Meet the Press” when she told that while Mr. Clinton was a great leader, “I don’t want my daughter near him.”

But the worst offenders, associates say, are former Clintonites who not only endorse Obama, but who also publicly criticize Mrs. Clinton’s campaign as they do so. Mr. Craig, a former law school classmate of Mrs. Clinton’s, became a charter member of this club when he wondered aloud (to Jonathan Alter of Newsweek) “if Hillary’s campaign can’t control Bill, whether Hillary’s White House could.”

Richardson tarred as 'Judas'
Mr. Richardson moved instantly atop the roster of infamy after he endorsed Mr. Obama and then took the added step of saying that people around the Clintons practiced “gutter” politics and that they felt entitled to the presidency. He was tarred as “Judas” in The New York Times by , still a fierce defender of the Clintons.

Mr. Clinton, who had courted Mr. Richardson at a private viewing in Santa Fe, reportedly railed to a former Richardson supporter in California that the governor had promised him (“five times, to my face”) that he would not endorse Mr. Obama. (Mr. Richardson has denied this.)

“The relationship has become very strained,” Mr. Richardson understated in an interview.

Mr. Kerry, his top aides and family members have received varying degrees of tongue-lashing from Clinton surrogates, chiefly two top fund-raisers — John Coale and Peter Maroney — with previous close ties to Mr. Kerry.

Mr. Kerry had been cool to Mrs. Clinton after he believed she had “piled on” in criticizing him after his “botched joke” before the 2006 midterm elections in which he seemed to demean American soldiers in Iraq. But Mrs. Clinton visited Mr. Kerry at his home in Nantucket last September, checked in regularly and, for a time, seemed close to winning him over.

Mr. Kerry, however, endorsed Mr. Obama shortly after the New Hampshire primary. To this day, the Clinton and Kerry camps disagree over whether Mr. Kerry had made promises to intermediaries not to take sides.

'He was dead to us'
He then publicly criticized Mr. Clinton’s conduct before the South Carolina primary. “And he was dead to us,” said one prominent Clinton supporter who is, in his words, “not authorized to trash Kerry on the record.”

Perhaps most painful among Clintonites are the lower-profile defections. They are the losses of former supporters like Mrs. Larson, people who revered the Clintons in the 1990s and still regard them highly. Both Mr. and Mrs. Clinton called Mrs. Larson on her cellphone earlier this year, telling her how much they needed her. Mrs. Larson even declared her support for Mrs. Clinton in mid-January.

But then the race got nasty in South Carolina, and Mr. Obama started winning and Mrs. Larson started reconsidering. “There was something about Senator Obama that I found really fresh and exciting,” she said. “I like how positive he has been.” She also spoke of “the destructive negativity” of the Clinton campaign.

Then Chelsea Clinton called a second time, last Saturday night, and kept asking “why?”

“I didn’t want to get into my reasons,” Mrs. Larson said. “I just told her it was something I had to do.”

This article,, originally appeared at The New York Times.