Obama, Bill Clinton united despite rift in New Jersey Democratic House primary

President Obama and former President Clinton presented a unified front Monday despite a clash that put the two on opposing sides of a bitter New Jersey primary.

Aides to both men said their conflicting positions in Tuesday’s House race between Democratic Reps. Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell have not led to any tension between the presidents, who appeared together at three New York fundraisers Monday night to benefit Obama’s reelection campaign.

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But the New Jersey contest is being seen as a proxy battle between the presidents, and their conflict has become the dominant political undercurrent in the final days of the race, overshadowing Rothman’s and Pascrell’s attempts to define each other before voters.

Clinton endorsed Pascrell, who backed former first lady Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential primary. Obama, while stopping short of a full endorsement, dispatched top adviser David Axelrod to New Jersey to endorse Rothman, who backed Obama in 2008. 

A source with knowledge of the House race said the division clearly indicated that Obama and Clinton both have long memories and strong loyalties to their earliest supporters.

“They both definitely notice when the other throws his weight around against one of their friends,” the source said. “What we saw in this case was a ratcheting-up of support — a cold arms race between the two sides.”

“Presidents on Parade” was the headline of the front-page spread in The Record, the region’s top newspaper, on Saturday — the day after Clinton traveled to New Jersey to stump for Pascrell and Obama invited Rothman to the White House for a chat.

“The president told him, ‘I need you in Congress helping me in my second term,’ ” said Rothman spokesman Paul Swibinski. “Although he can’t issue an official endorsement, he’s made it clear where his heart is.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney downplayed any talk of conflict between the presidents in his briefing Monday.

When asked about Clinton’s praise for presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s business career and economic credentials, Carney noted, “President Clinton has completely supported President Obama’s approach and has thoroughly endorsed Obama.”

Clinton has become one of Obama’s most important campaign surrogates this cycle, but the former president is also a wildcard factor, unafraid to speak his mind even if his position clashes with Obama’s.

And New Jersey’s primary shows a split between the two.

Rothman and Pascrell are close allies with strikingly similar voting records, but a redistricting-related primary pitted the two longtime friends against one another. 

No independent polling has been conducted in the race, but an internal poll released by Pascrell’s campaign showed the two locked in a dead heat that will almost certainly come down to which of the two Democrats is best able to turn out his base.

“This is really a family feud,” said Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University. “For a while it seemed that the race was Rothman’s to lose. Now it looks like anyone’s race.”

Both Democrats were first elected to the House in 1996, where they have represented neighboring districts in northern New Jersey. Both ran unopposed in their primaries in 2010, then went on to win reelection in the general election by more than 20 points.

But redistricting in New Jersey required state lawmakers to eliminate one congressional district following the 2010 U.S. Census, and Rothman’s district was largely merged with Pascrell’s, with Rothman’s home drawn into the district of neighboring Republican Rep. Scott Garrett. Rothman opted to challenge Pascrell in the safely Democratic district rather than face a much more conservative electorate in a bid against Garrett. Whoever wins Tuesday’s primary is the favorite to win the general election.

Deprived by their own records of the ability to clearly distinguish themselves on policy issues, Rothman and Pascrell worked to make the race about personality, credibility and integrity.

Playing to the liberal sensibilities of the district, Pascrell aired ads touting his efforts to fight the Tea Party agenda, and portrayed himself on the campaign trail as a hard-nosed and relentless advocate for the middle class.

“He said from the very beginning their votes are very similar,” said Pascrell spokesman Sean Darcy. “But a lot of the time, it’s what you’re doing in between the votes and who you are fighting for.”

Rothman, meanwhile, depicted his ally-turned-rival as less reliably liberal, accusing him of being insufficiently supportive of Israel and blasting him in a television ad for supporting tax cuts for the rich. That ad was given a “pants on fire” rating from the nonpartisan fact-checking site PolitiFact, which said that Rothman had edited footage of Pascrell’s comments to distort their meaning.

Although Rothman appeared at first to be getting some traction by portraying Pascrell as more conservative — Rothman even aired an ad declaring his support for gay marriage — the backlash over how he portrayed Pascrell’s positions might have left a sour taste in the mouth of voters, said Harrison.

“Loyal Democratic primary voters don’t necessarily like to see another liberal Democrat beaten up like Pascrell has been beaten up by Rothman,” said Harrison. “I’m getting the sense this is coming down to the age-old question of who you would rather have a beer with.”

Congressional Democrats mostly steered clear of the intraparty feud, but some Democrats did choose sides in the waning weeks of the primary. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) all contributed individually or through their political action committees to Pascrell’s campaign. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) all donated to Rothman.

In another key primary on Tuesday, two other Democratic incumbents — California Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman — will square off, although the state’s new “jungle primary” system makes it unlikely that the race will be resolved after the first round of voting.

The top two vote-getters on Tuesday will head to the general election, and because the district is heavily Democratic, both Berman and Sherman are expected to remain in the race through Election Day in November.

That race is also seen as a Clinton-Obama proxy war. Sherman endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008, while Berman backed Obama. The former president is supporting Sherman, while Berman appeared with Obama at a fundraiser at actor George Clooney’s California home last month.

And, in New Mexico, Democrat Martin Heinrich and Republican Heather Wilson are both poised to win easily their parties’ nominations for the state’s open Senate seat.