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Democratic unity efforts put to the test as convention approaches
By David Beery | Daily Herald Staff

Will Hillary Rodham Clinton backers flock to Barack Obama this November? The coming Democratic convention is the first test.


Associated Press

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Published: 8/10/2008 11:58 PM

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Eighteen million strong, Hillary Clinton backers have a choice to make as the Democratic convention nears in late August.

Switch allegiance to Barack Obama -- as some have and more undoubtedly will - and leave Denver as a unified party. Or, keep flirting with the idea of turning their support to the relative moderate on the other side of the ballot: Republican John McCain.

Obama and Clinton have appealed for unity. She has urged backers to vote for the Illinois senator, saying, as she did Friday in Nevada, that "anyone who voted for me or caucused for me has so much more in common with Sen. Obama than Sen. McCain."

For his part, Obama has lauded the Park Ridge native's historic candidacy and urged his donors to help her pay off some $20 million in campaign debt.

Yet, the depth of some Clinton backers' support and loyalty and the lingering anger many feel over how they believe she's been dismissed are flies in the Obama ointment - and factors that are difficult to calculate.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake last week found 76 percent of Clinton primary voters saying they will vote for Obama, 18 percent for McCain. But 18 percent of 18 million is a sizable and potentially vocal voting bloc, one capable of casting a shadow over the unity efforts of grass roots activists who have spent the two months since Obama clinched the nomination trying to build bridges after a long, often bitter primary battle.

For instance, an estimated 4,000 Obama backers hosted unity barbecues in late June; one such event in Palatine drew more than 100. Young adults are employing online social networks to serve the cause. One such Facebook site, Clinton & Obama Supporters Unite for America, involves several suburban residents and counts nearly 1,000 members.

Valerie Austin Alexander, of Chicago, a Clinton delegate and former spokeswoman for the Clinton campaign in Illinois, gives Obama high marks for the ways in which he has reached out to Clinton backers. Still, she called the challenge of winning them over "monumental."

"Hillary supporters were not only passionate, but there were also 18 million of them," she said.

Passionate enough that many demand, at the least, that her name be placed in nomination at the convention, a notion that Clinton has not discouraged. In a live chat on her Web site Thursday and in a recent talk with donors that surfaced on YouTube, she hints that she would welcome a roll-call vote for her delegates.

"I happen to feel," Clinton told backers in the YouTube clip, "that we will come out stronger if people feel that their voices were heard and their views respected."

She has suggested that allowing her delegates to whoop and holler in her support will provide "catharsis."

But Obama told reporters last week that "I don't think we're looking for catharsis. I think what we're looking for is energy and excitement about the prospects of changing this country..."

Team Obama has given Clinton a prime-time speaking slot on the convention's second day and handed her husband a speaking role. Clinton delegate Brian McPartlin, of Mount Prospect, called Obama's decision to let both speak a "critical component" of unity efforts.

Some Clinton backers want more. A group called 18 Million Voices Rise Hillary Rise plans to march and rally on her behalf in Denver on the day of her speech.

Gay Bruhn, a Clinton delegate from Aurora, wants party honchos to acknowledge that Clinton endured repeated incidents of sexism during the primary season.

"Sen. Obama and Dr. (Howard) Dean and Nancy Pelosi and various other people ought to be ashamed of themselves for allowing Hillary to be treated the way she was," Bruhn said. "There's a platform resolution about discrimination and the media that says that the Democratic Party will speak up the next time one of their leaders is treated like trash. Some of us want to correct that problem and move on."

There's no telling how large the contingent, but some Clinton followers will not be ready to move on unless Obama tabs the New York senator as his running mate. Once mentioned prominently for that role, Clinton now seems absent from Obama's short list. Her backers are watching closely.

"His vice presidential choice will be subject to the Hillary Clinton test: Is this person he chose as well or better qualified to be president than she is," Alexander said. "If the person is not, that's viewed as a personal affront to Clinton. I've heard that repeatedly."

Enough of an affront to prompt some Clinton supporters - as many as one in five? - to vote for McCain? Some Democrats acknowledge the possibility. They fret about polls showing a measure of "Obama fatigue." They interpret Obama's narrow lead in polls as a sign that he has not won over all Clinton acolytes.

McPartlin said those who would cross party lines are "shortsighted" and added, "I hope that in the next three months those folks will have an awakening in terms of what's at stake in November."