WASHINGTON -- Seeking to limit damage within the Indian-American Democratic community, White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said Monday it was a "screw-up" and "stupid" and a "mistake" for his campaign to issue a memo slamming ties rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and her husband, Bill, have to India and Indian-Americans.
"In sum, our campaign made a mistake," Obama said in a statement released through a group of Indian-American supporters called South Asians for Obama '08.
"Although I was not aware of the contents of the memo prior to its distribution, I consider the entire campaign -- and in particular myself -- responsible for the mistake."
In Iowa campaigning, Obama told the Des Moines Register on Monday, "It was a screw-up on the part of our research team." He added, "I thought it was stupid and caustic."
Obama's campaign, staffed with veteran Washington operatives, seeks to portray Obama as above the fray and an outsider candidate of change.
They got caught pushing a negative research memo aimed at the Clintons. It was headlined "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)'s personal financial and political ties to India," with the release pegged to the Clintons' latest financial disclosure, made public last week.
The Obama campaign had offered the Punjab memo to reporters writing about the Clinton finances on an off-the-record basis, meaning the reporter agreed to consider using the information but was not supposed to reveal that it came from the Obama camp.
However, a copy was obtained by the Clinton campaign and circulated to bloggers and reporters. (I was doing something else and did not deal with either campaign on this.)
The political problem for Obama -- besides insulting Indian-American Democrats, a growing source of votes and political money -- is that he has pledged to run a different type of campaign.
After his chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, engaged in sniping with Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson over disparaging remarks Hollywood mogul David Geffen made about Clinton, Obama told the New York Times in February he was not aware of the statement beforehand and "my preference going forward is that we have to be careful not to slip into playing the game as it customarily is played."
Obama was forced to backpedal under pressure. On Friday, the non-partisan United States India Political Action Committee wrote Obama asking "if indeed your staff is promoting these hurtful stereotypes." A statement by campaign manager David Plouffe was not deemed sufficient. On Sunday, the South Asians for Obama -- his own supporters -- said in a statement they were disturbed "by the clear anti-Indian sentiment" in the memo.
This is the third time Obama has blamed staff for mistakes. In May, Obama told leaders of the International Association of Fire Fighters he skipped their New Hampshire meeting because of his scheduling staff.
SAFO co-founder Hrishi Karthikeyan said Plouffe and Obama political staffer Rudi Shenks were on a conference call Monday with other Indian-Americans, where Plouffe "personally apologized to us." Obama spokesman Bill Burton said materials will now be reviewed by a "higher level" -- Plouffe and strategist David Axelrod -- before release.
It's too soon to tell if there is long-term damage. Said Karthikeyan, "It would be naive of me to say there aren't some people in the community whose support he lost."