- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Sen. Barack Obama’s absence from yesterday’s annual State of Black America forum did not spark the visceral criticism his no-show did last year, when leaders questioned his commitment to black people and the civil rights cause.

But a negative reaction was something Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York could not risk and she came to last night’s meeting, and said she is committed to rebuilding the city nearly destroyed almost three years ago by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

She also urged black voters not to let the small differences and spats between herself and Mr. Obama tear down the image of either candidate or the Democratic Party, and she framed the choice between her and Mr. Obama as one between two goods, not one between good and evil.

“I think that we all understand that this has been a very challenging election on many levels. For me personally and many who support me, and those who support Barack, as one of my friends told me, it is a good problem to have, but let’s be honest it is a problem,” Mrs. Clinton said.

She told the largely black audience that her record and her friendships with black leaders in Congress, the civil rights and business communities should speak for itself and so should Mr. Obama’s.

“I think it is important that we recognize the historic nature of this choice, but we must also recognize that we will be united once this is done, because the most important thing is that we take back this White House,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Last year, Mr. Obama could not attend because he had scheduled the formal announcement of his candidacy to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for president the same day as the forum. His campaign told event organizers that he would push their agenda but do so on the campaign trail.

While he stood before almost 10,000 supporters at the State House in Springfield, Ill., his blackness, character and commitment to civil rights faced strenuous questioning from such black scholars and activists as Cornel West, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley, the forum’s founder and host.

“Obama is a very decent, brilliant and charismatic brother, there is no doubt about that,” Mr. West said last year, adding that “the problem is he’s got people around him and talking to him that warrant our mistrust.”

He said Mr. Obama’s dueling schedule was taking black people for granted, and questioned his “love for the people.” By August, Mr. West had changed his tune and endorsed Mr. Obama.

Mrs. Clinton, who also didn’t appear in New Orleans last year but didn’t receive any criticism for that, has lost 11 straight contests to Mr. Obama and needs every bit of support she can get to keep alive her chances in a race that once seemed hers by default. Last year she was ahead in the national polls and perceived as invincible in every aspect on the campaign trail. Now she trails in every way imaginable: in states won, in convention delegates, in fund-raising and in polls.

She said that the superdelegates — who likely will hold the balance when Democrats convene in Denver in August since Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are so close in pledged delegates — don’t pose a unique problem and their power only appears unusual this time due to the past two elections.

“Because of the fact that in the last two cycles, in 2000 and 2004, the party chose a nominee really early we forget that my husband did not become the nominee until June. So, most primary elections have tended to be long except for recently,” she said.

“The rules have been set for a really long time. I think they have a role to play as do the caucuses and the primaries. I can’t remember there ever being a question about the role of any of the delegates coming up as long as I’ve been in elections at least since 1992.”

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