By Michael E. Miller
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Prominent Democrats, including South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, who as House majority whip works with Wasserman Schultz, have made public pleas for Clinton to tone down her attacks on Obama lest she cause a rift in the party coalition that cannot be fused in time for the general election.
An increasing number of superdelegates have thrown their support behind Obama citing not just the need for a unified party but their dismay at the negative tone of Clinton's campaign, which has tried to undermine support for Obama by suggesting he isn't prepared to assume the presidency and seizing on his associations with controversial figures such as his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Wasserman Schultz, on the other hand, has been unwavering in her support. "I don't think the tone of [Clinton's] campaign has been one way or the other," the congresswoman says. "She's been talking about issues that matter most to Americans: health care, Iraq, the economy."
Earlier this month, in the days leading up to the Indiana primary, Clinton's campaign touted a plan — originally championed by Republican nominee John McCain — calling for a suspension of the federal gas tax as a way of giving consumers a temporary break from fuel costs. Economists, politicians, and pundits were nearly unanimous in dismissing the plan as a pander. Wasserman Schultz went on cable news programs to defend Clinton. "I'm a minivan mom," she said on CNN's Larry King Live. "And the last time I filled up my minivan — the one I use to drive my kids around my district — it cost me $67. What Hillary's plan will do is put $70 potentially back into the pockets of people and make sure that they can put food on the table that week."
The following week, after the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, or NARAL, gave its endorsement to Obama, Wasserman Schultz made another appearance at the DNC headquarters. "We feel abandoned by this organization today," said the congresswoman, a leading proponent of women's reproductive rights. Later, she told an MSNBC reporter that NARAL made a "mistake beyond proportion."
But it is Wasserman Schultz's role in the wake of the Florida's primary-that-wasn't that has taken center stage in the past few weeks. Months ago, both Clinton and Obama accepted the DNC's ruling to strip Florida of its delegates, and both signed pledges vowing not to campaign in Florida. Of course, both sides would accuse the other of fudging on that pledge — Obama's national TV spots aired in Florida while Clinton made personal appearances at fundraisers.
In January, Clinton won the Florida primary with 50 percent of the vote to Obama's 33. She stood to gain some 36 pledged delegates and 300,000 votes. Counting those delegates and votes has become increasingly vital to Clinton's dimming hopes of persuading uncommitted superdelegates that she can catch Obama, whose victory in last week's Oregon primary gave him a seemingly insurmountable majority of pledged delegates heading into the August nominating convention.
Clinton spent an entire day in Florida last week, hoping to publicize her cause. Wasserman Schultz, meanwhile, provided some pointed media backup. "I think it's really disappointing that Barack Obama spoke to 15,000 Floridians today within the state and said absolutely nothing about whether he thinks Florida's delegation should be seated," she told Fox News. "In fact, he's never said from his mouth that Florida's delegation should be seated at the convention, and that's incredibly disappointing."
Clinton's last-ditch push to requalify the Florida results, and those from a similar primary in Michigan, has rankled party leaders, who had hoped to have a nominee months ago. Not only has Clinton pledged to stay in the race but she's stressed her appeal to white, rural, and working-class voters and voiced concerns about staking the party's presidential hopes on Obama, an African-American who has performed poorly among those voters.
All of this has placed Wasserman Schultz in a sticky situation. No one would question her desire to ensure that Floridians have a voice in the selection of the party's nominee for president. But her full-throated advocacy — particularly in the face of Clinton's original pledge not to campaign in Florida — has struck some as damaging to the party's chances of recapturing the White House.
"As Obama secures the nomination, the pressure is going to be on her to step up to the plate and work with the nominee," notes Joe Sudbay, a political consultant based in Washington, D.C., who is a frequent contributor to AMERICAblog.com.
For her part, Wasserman Schultz refuses to accept the prevailing math. Even as the media look ahead to an Obama/McCain matchup, she insists Clinton can and will prevail. And she sounds unconcerned about any political fallout. "I don't do things based on any supposed 'leadership track,' " she says. "I follow my heart. I stand up for what I believe in, and I believe in Hillary Clinton."
But if Obama did win? "I will be supportive of whomever the nominee will be and give him or her the full measure of my work ethic."
Her colleague, Rep. Robert Wexler, whose district spans portions of Broward and Palm Beach counties, is in the opposite position. As co-chair of Obama's Florida campaign, he stands to have closer ties to the White House if the Illinois senator wins in November. "It's wonderful to have a close relationship with the president when you're a member of Congress," says Eric Johnson, Wexler's chief of staff.