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Dems split support for Obama and Clinton

Alex Bloom | 4/30/2009, 7:29 a.m.

Just five days remain before Massachusetts chooses its nominees for November’s general election, as the Commonwealth will be among 22 states holding primary contests on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

The Bay State has taken center stage in the national workings of the Democratic Party in recent days, following Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s endorsement Monday of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama at a campaign event at American University in Washington, D.C.

“It was one of the moments that will forever be etched into my memory,” said U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. “It was a passing of the torch.”

Delahunt endorsed Obama in December and was on hand to witness the American event. Delahunt said the senior senator from Massachusetts inherited the legacies of his legendary brothers, the late President John F. Kennedy and the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, as well as the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

“[Kennedy] has truly been the guardian of that legacy and, as he said yesterday, now it’s time to turn the page again,” Delahunt said. “I think more than any other politician out there today, I’m convinced of the talent and capacity of Barack Obama to accept that legacy and move this country in a direction that will make us proud once more.”

The Kennedy endorsement gives Obama, who had already received endorsements from Sen. John F. Kerry and Gov. Deval Patrick, the backing of another major Massachusetts politician. But Obama’s chief rival, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, maintains a comfortable lead in the Commonwealth — a Jan. 24 SurveyUSA poll had Clinton receiving 59 percent of the vote, with Obama receiving just 22 percent.

“The Clintons have dominated the political scene in terms of national politics in Massachusetts for more than a decade, really, and there’s no doubt that the most powerful forces in the Democratic establishment in the state early on committed to her candidacy,” Delahunt said. “I respect that.”

Delahunt recognized that an Obama win in Massachusetts would be a surprising feat.

“Nobody can deny the fact that it would be a stunning effort for Barack Obama to win Massachusetts, but we’re going to make a good effort of it,” he said.

Tensions in Massachusetts between supporters of the two candidates have escalated as the primary approaches. Last week, House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, a Clinton supporter, told the Boston Globe on Jan. 22 that the presidency is too important for someone like Obama, whom DiMasi believes is too inexperienced.

“I think Massachusetts will look at it to find out what they can see in Obama with respect to what they did with their vote for Governor Patrick,” DiMasi said. “To be perfectly honest, I really don’t want my president to be in there in a learning process for the first six months to a year. It’s too important.”

The legislator’s comments reinforce the reality that state legislators and politicians have split very evenly in support of Clinton and Obama. Clinton has the support of many legislators in the State House and State Senate, as well as the endorsements of many Massachusetts U.S. congressmen.

“The quality of people and the number of quality people on both sides is extraordinary,” said Michael Goldman, a senior consultant for the Government Insight Group.

Goldman specifically mentioned Philip Johnston, who has endorsed Obama. Johnston is the former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and was appointed New England regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton.

Johnston said he believes Obama represents progressive ideals that were lacking under the Clinton administration, which did not pursue sending medicine to counter the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and cut funding for children during welfare reform.

“I think many liberals forgot what happened during the 1990s — that things were not so great for progressive issues,” Johnston said. “I don’t want a return to those days. I think people want to turn the page on the Clintons and the Bushes.”

Johnston said he is impressed by the aU.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who has endorsed Clinton, said that he is not surprised to see supporters on both sides of the debate. The fact that the two are so close ideologically, Frank said, means that prospective voters must look closely at personal characteristics and electability, where the candidates vary.

“The anomaly would be, frankly, if everyone was on one side,” Frank said.

Frank said that he supports Clinton because she can convey a sense of gravitas on the issues and is better prepared for the Washington atmosphere. Frank said that Obama’s belief in a new era is shortsighted.

“It’s too easy when he talks about fights of the 1990s not to be fought again,” Frank said. “I think he thinks he can work with these right wingers more than he can.”

Frank also downplayed the importance of endorsements by legislators and state leaders.

“The more important the office, the less important it is who we endorse,” Frank said. “The average citizen wants to make up his or her own mind.”

Despite Clinton’s sizable lead in state polls, Delahunt believes that Obama can close the gap in the remaining days before the primary.

“We have a person for a special moment of our history and that is Barack Obama,” Delahunt said. “I encourage all Democrats and independents to take a good look, and I feel confident that if they give Barack Obama the kind of scrutiny that this race deserves that they will end up supporting him.”