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Unity is no easy destination for Democrats

Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are negotiating a thicket of complicated issues, like how to repay Mrs. Clinton’s campaign debt and her role at the Democratic convention. The talks come as they try to leave behind their intense rivalry.
Image: Sen, Hillary Clinton an d Sen. Barack Obama in April 2008.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, shakes hands with Sen. Barack Obama, during the Compassion Forum at Messiah College, in Grantham, Pa., on April 13, 2008. Carolyn Kaster / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

With the help of one of Washington’s best-connected lawyers, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are negotiating a thicket of complicated issues, like how to repay Mrs. Clinton’s campaign debt and her role at the Democratic convention. The talks come as they try to leave behind their intense rivalry and work out a plan to cooperate this fall.

At Mrs. Clinton’s request, the lawyer, Robert B. Barnett, who has brokered multimillion-dollar book deals for clients including Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Bill Clinton, is working to hash out questions large and small as the two camps work toward a political merger. Perhaps the thorniest question — what to do about Bill Clinton, who friends say continues to refight the bitter primary fight — has yet to be raised by either side, advisers said.

On some levels, the melding of the two operations is moving ahead relatively smoothly. Mrs. Clinton will introduce some of her top donors to Mr. Obama on Thursday night in Washington, and on Friday the two of them will appear together at a rally in Unity, N.H. Mr. Obama is in talks to hire one of Mrs. Clinton’s most prominent advisers — Neera Tanden, her policy director — and has hired and dispatched a few of Mrs. Clinton’s field operatives to work in Missouri and Ohio.

Stuck in battle mode
But nearly three weeks after Mrs. Clinton suspended her campaign and endorsed Mr. Obama, some loyalists, especially on the Clinton side, are having trouble moving on.

Some Clinton supporters are grousing that Mr. Obama has yet to make the symbolic gesture of writing a check for $2,300, the maximum allowable campaign donation, to help retire her debt of over $12 million.

At her headquarters two weeks ago, a potluck dinner for women who had volunteered for Mrs. Clinton turned into a forum in which many of her most loyal supporters expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome of the contest and with Mr. Obama, attendees said. And some of Mrs. Clinton’s aides said Mr. Obama’s campaign had made only a perfunctory effort to hire Clinton staff members; the Clinton campaign payroll is ending for most employees in less than a week.

Mr. Obama’s aides said that while he was prepared to help her pay off the debt, there was only so far he would go, given his campaign’s own desire to raise record sums for the general election. In addition to the $12 million that Mrs. Clinton owes to outside suppliers, she pumped more than $10 million of her own money into her campaign.

Mr. Obama said Wednesday that he would not send out e-mail to his small-dollar donors asking them to send money to Mrs. Clinton. “Their budgets are tighter,” he said. “They know that I’m going to be working with Senator Clinton, and if they want to make contributions, there’s nothing wrong with their doing so, and I encourage them.”

Lots of talk, few meetings
Beyond that, the two sides are negotiating precisely what kind of role she will have at the convention, including what night she will make a prime-time speech and whether her name will be placed symbolically into nomination. They are discussing whether Mr. Obama’s campaign will provide a plane and staff for Mrs. Clinton as she travels on his behalf. The talks were described by aides on both sides as complicated, but not hostile.

Still, the sheer agenda of discussion items — and the presence of Mr. Barnett, a Washington lawyer who has represented some of the city’s top political and media figures over the years — served as a reminder of what an extraordinarily close competition this was for these two celebrity candidates.

For all that, aides to both senators said their relationship seemed far stronger than that of many of their respective supporters following this combative primary season.

Since Mrs. Clinton suspended her candidacy and endorsed Mr. Obama this month, the two have spoken a few times by telephone as recently as Sunday, but have not met in person since they got together at the Washington home of Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, two days after the last primaries.

Mr. Obama asked his big-dollar fund-raisers this week to step in to help Mrs. Clinton pay off her debt; Mrs. Clinton’s advisers said she would ask 200 of her most generous donors to start writing checks to Mr. Obama when the two appear before them at a closed-door session here on Thursday.

“They were allies before they became competitors in the longest Democratic fight on record; they’re re-establishing their relationship,” said David Axelrod, the chief strategist to Mr. Obama’s campaign. “I expect that they will unify around the things that they both care about. They both have an interest in working closely together.”

Mr. Axelrod added: “This was a long and unbelievably competitive battle. It takes a little time.”

‘Let’s get on board’
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, said that everyone who had supported her had been asked to turn all their energies to helping Mr. Obama. “Hillary is 100 percent behind making sure that Barack gets elected president,” Mr. McAuliffe said. “We’re instructing everybody, ‘Let’s get on board, let’s win this election.’ ”

He said that most of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters were eager to help Mr. Obama defeat his Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, though he said he had encountered regular reminders of the bitterness from the Democratic primary fight.

“There are people, as you know, who are angry; we just are going to have to deal with that,” he said. “I’ve been on losing ends before. For many of these people the only remedy is time.”

In their conversations, aides to both senators said, discussion of whether she would be interested in — or whether he would offer — a vice-presidential slot has not come up as they have sought to unify the Democratic Party.

“It’s a separate issue,” Mr. Axelrod said of the running-mate topic. “She’s been good enough to give him the room that a nominee should have to make a decision.”

Although Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have talked several times since she withdrew, Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton have yet to talk. The relationship-repairing effort, aides said, is concentrating first on Mrs. Clinton.

Old habits die hard
Aides to both senators say hard feelings between the two camps are dissipating by the week — many people from both sides, in fact, were friends before and remain close — but some habits remain. In the primary, aides to Mrs. Clinton referred to their rival as B.H.O. — initials of Barack Hussein Obama, including his middle name, which has been a politically sensitive issue — while Mr. Obama’s team simply referred to him as B.O. The B.H.O. shorthand is frowned upon inside Mr. Obama’s campaign headquarters, a warning for any Clinton staff members coming aboard.

Mr. McAuliffe said the debt problem should not be a big issue as the campaign moved forward. “Listen, I’ve been helping the Clintons with debt for a long time,” he said. “It hasn’t bothered us before, and it doesn’t bother me now. We’re going to retire the debt in due course. I’m not concerned.”

But Mrs. Clinton’s advisers have told Mr. Obama that her ability to campaign on his behalf will be curtailed if she has to devote the summer to raising money on her own behalf.

The question of how many of Mrs. Clinton’s former associates will end up working in Mr. Obama’s campaign is another source of tension. To date, there has been no large-scale effort to recruit Mrs. Clinton’s aides.

Part of this is because Mr. Obama’s campaign high command is already fully formed and because it is based in Chicago, meaning a relocation for most former Clinton workers. (Her headquarters was in suburban Washington.)

The hiring by Mr. Obama of Patti Solis Doyle, ousted as Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager in February, to run the operation of Mr. Obama’s running mate was seen by Clinton allies as a snub and a signal that Mrs. Clinton was not in contention for the No. 2 position on the ticket. Mr. Obama’s advisers said that was not the intended message.

Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, said the campaign was taking names of Clinton staff members from Mrs. Clinton and was prepared to hire a number, particularly for contested states.

“They are getting us the names of people who are interested in working with us,” Mr. Plouffe said, “and we are working through that. They have a lot of talent.”

Michael Powell contributed reporting from Chicago.

This story, , originally appeared in The New York Times.