Hillary Clinton's campaign has still not issued a categorical denial that any of its staff were circulating the photograph of Barack Obama wearing traditional Somali dress. But the campaign does seem to have settled on a consistent message, one that actually places the blame for the frenzy over the photo on the Obama campaign and the press, while being careful not to get caught in a denial it might not be able to back up later.
In an e-mail to reporters about campaign surrogate talking points, the Clinton campaign released what seemed to be a hypothetical Q&A between an imaginary reporter and an imaginary campaign surrogate. An excerpt:
Q: In the campaign’s official statement today Maggie Williams does not directly respond to whether the Clinton campaign circulated this picture. Do you know whether anyone in your camp circulated this picture?
A: No. I was not aware of it, the campaign didn’t sanction it and did not know anything about it.
Q: Have you asked all of the campaign staff about this?
A: We have over 700 people on this campaign and I’m not in a position to know what each one of them may or may not have done.
Have you actually seen the email the campaign is supposedly circulating? If you do see it, let me know.
And the candidate herself has now commented on the story. ABC News' Political Radar blog has details of an interview Clinton gave to an ABC affiliate, in which she said:
I know nothing about it... This is in the public domain. But let's just stop and ask yourself: 'Why are you -- why is anybody concerned about this?' ...
This is one more attempt by my opponent's campaign to change the subject... From his health-care plan that won't cover everybody, from an economic plan that won't produce jobs, and from a record that is pretty thin when it comes to national security and standing up for our country around the world...
Every time I traveled to foreign countries, I wore the costume of the country. You can find dozen of pictures of me in different parts of the world... You can find me wearing African outfits, Latin American outfits, Asian outfits, when you travel to foreign countries, it’s a sign of respect. What does that have to do with anything?
Clinton's comments echoed those of her campaign manager, Maggie Williams, who said in a statement earlier Monday, "If Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed... This is nothing more than an obvious and transparent attempt to distract from the serious issues confronting our country today and to attempt to create the very divisions they claim to decry."
Also, in two conference calls with reporters Monday, Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson directed some of his ire at the media for reporting that the photograph came from the Clinton campaign, saying in one call, "I have not previously seen this photograph. I'm not aware that anyone in this campaign circulated it. I don't imagine that you have any independent reporting to suggest that we did; I don't know who has done independent reporting to suggest that we did... I guess I would ask you to see if you can determine whether anyone did before reporting something that is sourced in the way that it is.
Later in that call, questioned about the potentially detrimental effects to the Clinton campaign itself of negative attacks on Obama, Wolfson responded,
I think it is true that every time the Obama campaign in this campaign has attacked Senator Clinton in the worst kind of personal ways, attacked her veracity, attacked her credibility, said that she would say or do anything to get elected, the press has largely applauded him... I think Senator Obama's entire campaign against Senator Clinton is negative. I think he has run against her as the status quo. He has called her -- he has essentially called her divisive. He has called her untruthful. He has questioned her credibility. He has said she will do or say anything to get elected.
Now, if that's not negative, I don't know what negative is. So is it negative to have a debate about a health care plan? I don't think so. But it certainly is negative for one candidate to call another's credibility and veracity into question, as Senator Obama does every day. His entire campaign is premised on that point, from day one.