By Jim Tankersley
The man who managed Bill Clinton's winning 1992 presidential campaign endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president this afternoon, snubbing Clinton's wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the process.
David Wilhelm, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who now works as a venture capitalist in Ohio, said Obama's momentum, his message, the quality of his campaign and his potential to command a "broad coalition" as president "that can make change a reality" all contributed to the decision to endorse.
Obama, he said in a conference call, has tapped into "a sense of energy, a sense of idealism, that I'd like to think we were able to tap into in 1992" on the Bill Clinton campaign.
Wilhelm conceded his endorsement pales, on a name-brand basis, to those of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and former Sen. John Glenn -- both of whom back Hillary Clinton. But Wilhelm's support brings some tactical benefits for Obama. For starters, he's a "superdelegate" to the Democratic National Convention, which means Obama is now one vote closer to the party nomination. He's well-known in Democratic circles, and he said he expects to take an active role lobbying other superdelegates - the party insiders and elected officials not chosen by state primaries or caucuses - to support Obama.
He also brings a strategic knowledge of the political landscape in Ohio, a general-election swing state that is set to play an equally crucial role in the Democratic nominating process when it holds its primary on March 4. A year ago, the Ohio Democratic Party hired Wilhelm to "audit" its operations and recommend improvements to maintain the political gains Democrats scored in the Buckeye State in 2006.
Strickland told a reporter last year that Wilhelm "talked to scores of people, maybe hundreds, about messaging technology, management, fund raising – everything the state party should be doing to be successful. He brought me a number of recommendations which we are in the process of implementing."
Now, Obama will presumably get those as well. Wilhelm said he's already advised the campaign on advertising and superdelegate courting. "I'll do whatever the campaign asks me to do," he said today.
Wilhelm stepped down as DNC chairman after the 1994 "Republican Revolution" swept the GOP to control of Congress; he reportedly had fallen out of favor with the Clinton White House by that point. This marks the second time this election cycle he has backed a Democrat not named Clinton. He advised Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) in his short-lived White House bid. (Wilhelm also worked for Biden in his 1988 presidential run; his other clients have included Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.)
This afternoon, he cast his endorsement as the beginning of a movement to unite party leaders around Obama. He said it would be almost impossible for Clinton to catch Obama among "pledged" delegates - those won in state-by-state voting - by the end of the primary season and warned against what he called the "unlikely" scenario of Clinton then going on to win the nomination thanks to superdelegates. "If superdelegates override the choice of Democratic Party voters," he said, "that would be a very difficult and divisive scenario for the party."
Clinton has targeted Texas and Ohio for a goal line stand of sorts for the campaign, following a string of February losses to Obama. Because of that, Wilhelm called Ohio a "land of opportunity" for Obama.
"I don't think he has to win Ohio," he said, "but I think if he wins Ohio, he may wrap up the nomination."