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An "Underwhelming" Nominee

A Commentary by Robert D. Novak

Thursday, July 10, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "I would say he was pretty underwhelming," said Lawyer Gus several days after he and some 200 other big-money supporters of Hillary Clinton's failed presidential campaign met with the victor, Barack Obama, in Washington on June 26. Lawyer Gus is a longtime Democratic activist, who will support and contribute to Obama as the party's nominee, but will not be enthusiastic about it.

He is not alone. After the closed-door session in the Mayflower Hotel's ballroom, Gus was among 20 participants who gathered for drinks to talk it over. They agreed it was not an "exciting performance" by the candidate who has entranced monster rallies across the country. Obama was "low-key" in a perfunctory appeal to them.

The Clintonites do not feel alienated, as supporters of Edward M. Kennedy did in 1980, when they never resigned themselves to Jimmy Carter's renomination. None of these loyal Democrats talked about sitting out the 2008 presidential election against John McCain or locking up their bank accounts. Since a donation does not indicate the benefactor's degree of enthusiasm, what difference does it make? Only that it signals a lack of confidence by important Democrats for a candidate whose charisma is supposed to cancel out his inexperience.

Only one person of the Mayflower group whom I contacted (the one least critical of Obama) was willing to let his name be used. Gus is a multimillionaire trial lawyer whose name would be widely recognized as a Democratic money man. He is no "Friend of Bill" who automatically signed on with the former president's wife. With his support sought by several presidential candidates, Gus at one point considered backing Obama but ended up with Clinton because she seemed the best-qualified, most electable Democrat. Contrary to the media consensus, Gus found the Clinton campaign one of the best managed in his wide experience.

Just what Gus and his friends were seeking in the encounter is unclear, but they left dissatisfied. As has been reported, Obama said he and his wife Michelle each were writing the maximum $2,300 check to help erase Clinton's massive campaign debt. Obama added he would ask his supporters to do the same.

But, in the opinion of the Clintonites, he did not open the door to his campaign because he asked nothing of them. Big-money Democrats who would have expected to be named a U.S. ambassador by President Hillary Clinton realized they would get nothing from President Obama. The train had left the station, and they were not aboard.

Terry McAuliffe, long the Clintons' faithful political servitor and Hillary's presidential campaign chairman, played the cheerleader after the meeting. "This is unity!" he declared to reporters assembled in the Mayflower's long lobby. Vernon Jordan, another longtime Clintonite, was similarly upbeat.

But the tone of what really happened inside the locked ballroom was quite different once Obama and Hillary Clinton had their cordial say and the floor was open for questions. The first "questioner," an angry woman from New York, demanded a roll call of presidential preference at the Denver convention. Next came another distraught woman, declaring that Clinton's candidacy was the victim of "misogyny." One participant told me, "This is as tough a crowd as Obama is going to face the whole campaign."

It was so tough that Lanny Davis, the one participant to whom I talked who permitted his name to be used, tried to change the mood. Davis, who had been a Clinton White House aide and remains a fervent supporter of both Clintons, rose to say the presidential contest had been painful in dividing Democratic families -- alienating him from his Obama-supporting son, Seth Davis, the prominent college basketball reporter. Now, he said, they are together again.

But Davis admitted to me there is "a lot that needs to be done" for all wounds to be healed. "It's going to take a long time," Lawyer Gus said of achieving unity. The minds of the Clintonites are with Obama, but not their hearts. That helps explain why the presidential race appears close in what otherwise shapes up as a horrible year for Republicans, and that is why the nominee's "underwhelming" performance at the Mayflower is important.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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