WASHINGTON -- After the Clinton campaign threw a spotlight Monday on a riff Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) borrowed from a speech made by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the Illinois senator said he was happy to give his friend credit as he downplayed the questions being raised by his rival about the authenticity of his soaring, inspirational rhetoric.
"Sen. Obama's campaign is premised on the strength of oratory," said Howard Wolfson, chief spokesman for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), in a conference call with reporters. The focus was on a portion of a speech Obama delivered in Wisconsin that heavily borrows from a speech Patrick made during his run for governor. Obama and Patrick, a native of Chicago's South Side, are friends and share in common as their top strategist David Axelrod.
"The point here is that he, Sen. Obama, lifted his rhetoric," said Wolfson. Patrick and Obama "are close friends and they do share thoughts, ideas and language," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe in a conference call.
The Obama team -- and Obama -- went on to note that Clinton at times has used some of Obama's signature phrases, such as "fired up and ready to go."
"In fairness, there are phrases that are more common in American life than others. But this is not just a phrase or three words strung together, it was not something that I think we would all consider to be more frequent than not in public use ... this one clearly crossed the bright line," Wolfson said.
Obama, speaking to Wisconsin Democrats on Saturday, tackled what is for the moment a small problem: that some columnists -- even friendly ones -- are asking what is behind Obama's incomparable ability to deliver a moving speech and pack arenas. Clinton has been making the point that she is about "solutions," not "speeches."
With that in mind, Obama said, "Don't tell me words don't matter," and went on to repeat three famous quotes from American history. The syntax was almost the same as Patrick used in a speech in 2006, when he was running for governor.
Obama and his team brushed aside the discovery of his borrowed rhetoric as a Clinton ginned-up contretemps in their Democratic presidential race. But in 1987, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) had his first presidential bid derailed when he was caught not attributing lines from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock (though he had in previous versions of the speech).
During a press conference in Ohio, Obama was asked about the copycat riff.
"Now hold on a second -- I have written two books, wrote most of my speeches, so I think putting aside the question that you just raised in terms of whether my words are my own, I think that would be carrying it too far," he said. Obama has three speechwriters on his campaign staff: Jon Favreau, Adam Frankel and Ben Rhodes.
Obama continued, "Deval and I do trade ideas all the time. And, you know, he's, you know, occasionally used lines of mine, and I at a [Democratic Party] dinner in Wisconsin used some words of his. And, you know, I would add that I know that Senator Clinton on occasion has used words of mine as well."
The Clinton campaign highlighted the controversy the day before the voting in Wisconsin and Hawaii.