Clinton-Obama Experience Clash

Mississippi goes to the polls Tuesday to decide the fate of 33 delegates to the Democratic National Convention—an important bloc in the tightly contested battle for the party's presidential mantle heading into the fall. But you wouldn't know it down here on the ground in the Delta.

Barack Obama has the state to himself; Hillary Clinton's campaign seems to have written Mississippi off, leaving only daughter Chelsea behind to try to turn out the vote. According to the two most recent polls, Clinton trails Obama by between 6 and 17 points—despite the long-standing ties of former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton to the region.

Obama basked in his lead over breakfast at Buck's restaurant in Greenville, accompanied by a few dozen local pols, while more than 100 cheering supporters gathered outside. An old salad bar had been repurposed as a place to plant fliers; Obama campaign literature nestled next to a Xeroxed advertisement for "A Head of Time," a local beauty salon offering men's haircuts for $10 and up.

The restaurant's owner, S. B. Buck ("My mother gave me initials, I was such a bad boy") said Obama was inspiring voters by reaching out to young people. "Young people fall through the cracks and haven't been participating in politics," he said. "Young people are eventually going to control everything in America, and you can't leave them out."

Buck spoke warmly about President Clinton but felt another Clinton term in the White House under Hillary wouldn't work. "[Bill] was the first black president we ever had," he said. "Bill has been there. He knows what needs to be done and will take over behind the scenes. I think one time for a First Family is enough, even for the Bushes. That's my opinion."

Obama seems to agree. In the run-up to the vote, he and his aides have been questioning Clinton's oft-repeated claim that she has extensive national security experience—the claim at the core of her "3 a.m." phone ad, which featured prominently in the days before Ohio and Texas voted on March 4.

Greg Craig, an Obama aide who ran the State Department's influential policy planning office in the early Clinton years (and was later a White House lawyer who defended Bill Clinton in his Senate impeachment trial), penned a memo spelling out what he termed "exaggerated" claims about Hillary Clinton's national security credentials.

"She did not have security clearance," he wrote. "She did not attend meetings in the Situation Room. She did not manage any part of the national security bureaucracy, nor did she have her own national security staff … She never managed a foreign-policy crisis, and there is no evidence to suggest that she participated in the decision-making that occurred in connection with any such crisis.

"As far as the record shows, Senator Clinton never answered the phone either to make a decision on any pressing national security issue—not at 3 a.m. or at any other time of day."

Craig pointed to several recent claims by Clinton that she played a critical foreign policy role—in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda. For instance, Clinton claimed in New Hampshire to have "helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland"—a suggestion that at least one of the central players in that peace process debunked as "a wee bit silly."

"It is a gross overstatement of the facts for her to claim even partial credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland," wrote Craig.

In Bosnia, Clinton claimed to have dodged sniper fire on a March 1996 visit. The trip turned out to be a USO show that included the singer Sheryl Crow and the comedian Sinbad. In Kosovo, Clinton claimed to have opened the borders for refugees on a trip to a refugee camp in Macedonia. In fact, her trip took place the day after the borders were opened.

On Rwanda, both Bill and Hillary Clinton suggested that the New York senator pressed for intervention by U.S. troops to stop the genocide. The Obama campaign points out that there was no discussion among National Security Council officials of the use of U.S. troops at that point. And there was no mention of Hillary's position in either her own best-selling memoirs, or those of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

The Clinton campaign penned its own memo in response. "Still reeling from its losses in Ohio and Texas, the Obama campaign has come out swinging, taking aim at Senator Clinton's considerable foreign policy experience with false claims and baseless attacks," the memo said.

As proof of Clinton's foreign policy experience, the campaign cited testimony from Richard Holbrooke, one of her senior foreign policy aides who negotiated the Dayton accords. Holbrooke said Clinton had "pressed the Macedonian government to fully open the border." Clinton forces also cited George Mitchell, President Clinton's envoy to Northern Ireland, who said Hillary had played a "positive role" in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. On Rwanda, the campaign cited a passage from Clinton's memoir praising her husband's administration on trade and investment in Africa.

Look for this debate to continue at least until April 22, when Pennsylvania goes to the polls.