The contest, in northern New Jersey, between Rep. Steven R. Rothman and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. has exposed old wounds in the Democratic Party dating to the bitter 2008 primary contest between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Obama is backing Rothman, while Bill Clinton is supporting Pascrell. Their reasons are simple: Rothman endorsed Obama in the 2008 primary, and Pascrell endorsed the former first lady.
Now it’s payback time.
So before flying to Minnesota on Friday, Obama held a 15-minute meeting in the Oval Office with Rothman and then took the congressman on a short walk in view of the White House press corps. Rothman later provided an analysis of the visit’s meaning even though the president said nothing publicly.
“I think it’s fair to say that he was not unmindful that appearing with me as we walked along the White House colonnade in full view of the entire White House press corps might very well make it into the New Jersey newspapers,” said Rothman, who is the only candidate in “member vs. member” primaries to win Obama’s endorsement.
Not coincidentally, Pascrell was scheduled to appear with the former president Friday night.
Obama and the Clintons appear to have fully reconciled after the 2008 primary skirmish, but their contentious history has been a consistent subtext of national Democratic politics during the past four years. The former president has appeared at Obama fundraisers, and the two will appear together at an event Monday.
Veteran Democratic operatives said that the New Jersey divide is a natural consequence of old rivalries but that it is more about loyalty rather than animosity.
“Both Clinton and Obama have been helping candidates who supported them in the past,” said veteran Democratic operative Joe Trippi. “Occasionally it has put them on opposite sides of some tough primaries, but it’s about loyalty to past supporters, not a rift between them.”
Trippi noted that Bill Clinton endorsed Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in 2010 over Sen. Michael F. Bennet, who had Obama’s support. Clinton eventually campaigned with Bennet.
This year, Clinton has backed other Democratic primary candidates in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Texas who endorsed his wife’s presidential bid.
Still, the clash in New Jersey comes at a time when the former president appears to be “off the reservation” with regard to the Obama campaign’s message on Mitt Romney’ s career as a private equity executive.
While the Obama campaign has been trying to portray the presumptive Republican nominee’s business career as one driven, to an exceptional degree, by greed and disregard for the little guy, Clinton described it this week as “sterling.”
“I don’t think that we ought to get into the position where we say this is bad work,” Clinton said Thursday night on CNN. “This is good work.”