Sen. Barack Obama yesterday blamed his campaign staff for crafting an opposition research document aimed at rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a memo that prompted accusations he is practicing the kind of negative campaigning he regularly assails.
It’s the latest in a string of incidents in which the Illinois Democrat has distanced himself from actions taken by his staff, while his opponents say Mr. Obama’s campaign is obviously employing tactics that top campaign officials and the candidate himself have said they wouldn’t use.
The memo — given to reporters Thursday — outlined some of the disclosures filed on financial forms for Mrs. Clinton, New York Democrat, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and highlighted the couple’s ties to India and Indian-Americans.
The memo “was a screw-up on the part of our research team,” Mr. Obama told the Des Moines Register yesterday. “It wasn’t anything I had seen or my senior staff had seen.”
The Obama campaign declined to comment further, but the senator issued a statement yesterday addressed to the Indian-American community, whose leaders took offense at the contents of the memo. Mr. Obama apologized and said he considers himself responsible.
“Our campaign made a mistake. Although I was not aware of the contents of the memo prior to its distribution, I consider the entire campaign — and in particular myself — responsible for the mistake. We have taken appropriate action to prevent errors like this from happening in the future,” Mr. Obama said in the statement.
“Your concerns with the memo are justified,” Mr. Obama said, adding it “did not reflect my own views on the importance of America’s relationship with India” and noting its “caustic tone” was “potentially hurtful and, as such, unacceptable.”
The initial memo, an opposition research document, referred to Mrs. Clinton as “D-Punjab,” a twist on a joke she made in March 2006 that she has such a good relationship with the Indian community that she could be elected as the senator from the Indian state. The memo also suggested the Clintons are too closely tied to companies that outsource to India.
The document was first given out by Obama staffers only on background as from a “rival campaign.” A Clinton staffer got a copy of the memo and sent it to reporters, forcing the Obama campaign to acknowledge its origin.
For many politicians, these types of memos are considered business as usual, but since Mr. Obama began his 2008 White House bid he has promised a “different” kind of politics with an elevated message of bringing people together.
The U.S.-India Political Action Committee sent a letter to Mr. Obama on Friday, accusing his campaign of using racial stereotypes.
“We have been encouraged by your message of inclusion and your promise to bring a new kind of politics to our country,” the letter read. “This is why we are so concerned about media reports indicating your staff may be engaging in the worst kind of anti-Indian American stereotyping.”
The senator also has criticized his staff for poor planning, telling a group of firefighters in May that he couldn’t attend their meeting because his aides botched the scheduling.
“They heard from me a little bit because I wasn’t happy I couldn’t be there personally,” he told the group in a conference call, CNN reported.
In February, he distanced himself from a fight that erupted between the two campaigns’ press shops after his supporter David Geffen slammed the former president and first lady in an interview.
Mr. Obama later told the New York Times he had been traveling and not following the day’s events as Clinton and Obama aides traded barbs via e-mailed press releases, and said he viewed it as a distraction from important issues.
“My preference going forward is that we have to be careful not to slip into playing the game as it customarily is played,” he said.
The Clinton campaign declined to comment yesterday.
Today and tomorrow Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and other Democratic candidates will address two key groups in Washington — the Take Back America conference of liberal voters and a forum hosted by the powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.
Mr. Obama will speak to each forum today. Mrs. Clinton speaks to the union today and the liberal conference tomorrow.
At last year’s Take Back America conference, the conventioneers booed Mrs. Clinton when she explained her position on the Iraq war, but organizers yesterday said her recent votes against the war spending supplemental help her standing.
“Her position on the war has dramatically changed,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, which is organizing the event. “She comes to this conference in a very different posture.”
Take Back America, in its fifth year, is an early test of how the candidates fare among liberal voters. The results of a presidential nomination straw poll conducted during the conference will be revealed tomorrow afternoon.
Organizers said yesterday they believe liberal voters are urging the politicians to take action, not the other way around.
“It wasn’t our leaders who first asked the hard questions about the Iraq war. It wasn’t them; it was us,” said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, which boasts 3.3 million members.
“We shouldn’t be waiting around for Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to deliver us to victory,” he said. “If we want an end to the Iraq war we have to make it impossible for them not to do it. I have faith that all of us together, the people in this room and the millions of them who are with us in this fight will find the way.”