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Obama, Clinton backers get carried away

February 1, 2008 | 11:01 pm

Good vibes may have emanated from the two remaining Democratic presidential contenders during Thursday's debate in Hollywood, but my oh my, surrogates let loose Friday by each campaign sniped away -- and in each instance, apologies were the end result.

In one case, a top military advisor to Barack Obama ridiculed Hillary Clinton's now-famed misty-eyed moment in the buildup to the New Hampshire primary and her later claim to have found her voice in that state.

In the other case, a participant in a conference call set up by Team Clinton to rebuke an Obama mailer about healthcare policy used a Nazi reference in decrying it (always a bad idea).

The Times' Peter Wallsten has the details on the pointed remarks made by the Obama counselor, retired Air Force Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeak. Indeed, the remarks were made to Wallsten during a telephone interview, much to the chagrin of the Obama aide listening in.

Commenting on the argument Clinton likes to make that she offers a "gravitas" ...

in foreign policy that Obama lacks, McPeak went off.

Here's the key quote, one that may reverberate a bit on the campaign trail: "[Obama] doesn't go on television and have crying fits. He isn't discovering his voice at the age of 60." ****

McPeak had more to say in a similarly dismissive tone, which you can read about here.

Wallsten was still digesting what he had heard when McPeak called back to retract what he had said (we would guess he got a few nudges to do so from cooler heads). And, as Wallsten relates in his story, the Obama campaign officially repudiated the remarks and apologized.

McPeak isn't just any old supporter. He's a heavyweight -- a former Air Force chief of staff under two presidents (including Bill Clinton in the early part of his first term). McPeak no doubt has provided Obama some valuable guidance. But we're betting that his availability to the media may become more limited.

Same goes for Len Nichols, director of health policy for the New America Foundation. That's a nonpartisan think tank, and Nichols says he is not officially affiliated with the Clinton campaign. But he was part of that conference call it set up to respond to the Obama mailer, and he ended up making more news than her aides would have wanted.

Perhaps the key domestic policy distinction between the two Democrats stems from their healthcare plans -- Clinton's would mandate universal coverage, while Obama's doesn't (he agrees that his proposal would lead to something close to it, though).

The Obama mailer shows a couple sitting at a kitchen table reviewing Clinton's plan. The caption reads: "Hillary's health care plan forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can't afford it.''

The Clinton campaign took great umbrage to the image, declaring it reminiscent of the famous "Harry and Louise'' ads that the insurance industry used so effectively in the early 1990s to defeat the healthcare revamp effort that Clinton spearheaded while her husband occupied the White House. In the conference call, which The Times' Peter Nicholas listened to, Nichols said he was outraged by the picture.

And then he let his ire get the best of him.

"It is as outrageous as having Nazis march through Skokie, Ill.,'' he said.

He was referring to a cause celebre in the late 1970s, when a group of American Nazis wanted to march through a Chicago suburb with a heavily Jewish population.

The Clinton campaign quickly disavowed Nichols' remark, and he issued an apology.

"Today my passion overwhelmed me,'' he said. "I chose an analogy that was wholly inappropriate. I am deeply sorry for any offense that my unfortunate comments may have caused.''

-- Don Frederick

**** It was open season on the 60-year-old mark the last few days. Mike Huckabee had this to say in cracking wise about his rival in the Republican presidential race, Mitt Romney: "... here's a man who didn't hit political puberty in the conservative ranks until 60 years old."

You can see Huckabee (a mere pup at 52) deliver his line here.

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