/ 28 June 2008

Standing shoulder to shoulder

It was, for a Democratic Party anxious to project an image of one big happy family before the presidential election, an irresistible conjunction of symbols: twin flag-draped podiums deposited in a field of clover in a remote picturesque little town called, to the political imagemakers’ delight, Unity.

And Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both now consummate political performers, did their best to live up to the promise implied in Friday’s venue.

They stood shoulder to shoulder, hugged, whispered in one another’s ears, smiled and waved in unison. ”Unity is not only a beautiful place as you can see,” said Clinton. ”It is also a wonderful feeling, isn’t it.”

Obama and Clinton’s joint campaign appearance in this New Hampshire town marked the first time the two had shared a public forum since he destroyed her hopes of returning to the White House by winning the Democratic Party nomination.

After 15 months of political combat — the sniping in debates, the negative TV ads, the charges of sexism and racism — it was a moment of carefully constructed theatre, with Democratic activists from small towns scanning the two leaders for signs of lingering enmity.

”This is really important. Friends of mine are still mourning the loss of Hillary Clinton. They are really having trouble coming over to Obama,” said Mary Boyle, a microbiologist professor and a local Democratic Party official in the nearby town of Cornish. ”People are going to be watching what she says today, and if the Democrats want a strong campaign, with people really engaged in the events, these Clinton supporters need to be able to say: ‘I can see she’s really with him. I am going over to the other side.”’

The mechanics of Friday’s event, requiring a fleet of orange school buses to ferry the public from collection points 16km away, were as elaborate as the political accommodation between the Clinton and Obama camps.

Unity has a population of just 1 600, and that is counting the inmates of the local jail and nursing home. But, in a freak of mathematics in the state’s Democratic primary last January, the town voted equally for Clinton and Obama, giving each candidate 107 votes.

That made it the perfect spot for Friday’s coming together of the two camps. Obama is anxious to prevent defections by disgruntled Clinton supporters to the Republican candidate, John McCain.

As the performance suggests, the personal equation between Obama and Clinton may be better than many onlookers might expect. But resolving the divisions between their followers could prove far more challenging.

Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent and co-author of a book about body language, What Every Body is Saying, has studied Clinton and Obama’s reactions during joint appearances.

He argues the two candidates probably get along much better than anyone might have imagined.

”Probably the most powerful one is that they stand very close together,” he said. ”When they touch each other, whether shaking hands or giving each other a close hug, it’s all very close. It’s not the kind of hug where you see the other person very far away and bending all the way forward.”

That was certainly the impression they gave on Friday night, at the event and on the runway at Reagan national airport just outside Washington. They greeted each other with a handshake and a kiss before boarding their flight to Unity. They spent the entire flight talking.

Still, it’s hard for professional politicians, let alone ordinary Democratic supporters, to entirely set aside their previous allegiances. Bitterness keeps creeping in. Clinton’s former supporters acknowledge that it is in their interest as Democrats to support Obama.

But even Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic candidate for Senate who spent the day campaigning with Michelle Obama on Thursday, could not bury her sense of grievance at Clinton’s loss. Shaheen had been one of Clinton’s most powerful supporters in New Hampshire. ”I know what it’s like to make an important policy statement only to have the media report what you are wearing or what your hair style is,” Shaheen told the crowd in Unity.

Clinton has vowed to work her heart out to support Obama, and on Thursday spoke to conferences of two of her core constituencies — nurses and Latinos — to try to bring them around.

The Obama camp has also been reaching out to Clinton supporters. In her appearance in New Hampshire on Thursday, Michelle Obama paid tribute to Clinton’s candidacy for furthering the causes of working women.

The former foes have also been trying to show their new amity in more tangible ways — in cash. On Thursday night, Clinton introduced about 300 of her biggest fundraisers to Obama at an event at a venerable Washington hotel.

”I have debated him in more debates than I can remember and I have seen his passion and his determination and his grit and his grace,” she told her financial supporters. ”In his own life he has lived the American dream.”

Obama has told his donors to help Clinton pay off more than $20-million in campaign debts. He is also making a $2 300 donation, the maximum individual contribution allowed under US law.

The two camps have also been conducting discussions through lawyers and aides about Clinton’s role at the party’s convention in August, and the extent of campaign appearances in the autumn. Obama’s campaign has also been taking on former Clinton staff.

A poll released this week showed Obama making progress in winning over former Clinton supporters, but there is still some distance to go. The Associated Press poll found 53% of Democrats who supported Clinton for the nomination have transferred to Obama. In April, only 40% of Clinton supporters said they would be willing to vote for Obama in the presidential elections.

However, it means there is still a significant constituency of aggrieved Clinton supporters who need to be won over. Among the most vocal have been the woman of Puma, or Party Unity My Ass, a rebuff to calls by Democratic leaders for Clinton supporters to come together behind Obama.

And then there is Bill Clinton. So far, the former president has issued only the most tepid of endorsements for Obama — and that through a spokesperson.

As the two campaigns converged on Unity on Friday night, the former president was nowhere to be found.

FBI agent Joe Navarro’s guide to interpreting what Clinton and Obama are really feeling

Stance: Are they standing close to each other, or leaning slightly apart?

Handshakes: full palm-touching, victory handshakes suggest they are getting along. If their hands barely graze, there is trouble

Mirror behaviour: If Obama points to the crowd and waves, watch to see if Clinton does too. If she does, that’s a good sign

Smile: Are the corners of Obama and Clinton’s mouth go up to the eyes? Then it’s genuine. If their smile gravitates towards their ears, it’s fake

Blink rate: If either blinks a lot, that’s a sign of animosity

Squinting: Also a negative sign – guardian.co.uk