The protracted and increasingly acrimonious fight for the Democratic presidential nomination is unnerving core constituencies -- African Americans and wealthy liberals -- who are becoming convinced that the party could suffer irreversible harm if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton maintains her sharp line of attack against Sen. Barack Obama.
Clinton's solid win in the Pennsylvania primary exposed a quandary for the party. Her backers may be convinced that only she can win the white, working-class voters that the Democratic nominee will need in the general election, but many African American leaders say a Clinton nomination -- handed to her by superdelegates -- would result in a disastrous breach with black voters.
"If this party is perceived by people as having gone into a back room somewhere and brokered a nominee, that would not be good for our party," House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the highest ranking African American in Congress, warned yesterday. "I'm telling you, if this continues on its current course, [the damage] is going to be irreparable."
That fear, plus a more general sense that Clinton's only route to victory would be through tearing down her opponent, has led even some black Democrats who are officially neutral in the race, such as Clyburn, to speak out.
Clinton's camp has a vastly different interpretation, arguing that the most recent primary demonstrated that Democrats remain very interested in seeing the contest continue.
"Pennsylvania did the job of calming any nerves that existed," said Clinton campaign spokesman Jay Carson. "It showed that the big states around the country think she's the best person to be president."
But that opinion is far from unanimous. More than 70 top Clinton donors wrote their first checks to Obama in March, campaign records show. Clinton's lead among superdelegates, a collection of almost 800 party leaders and elected officials, has slipped from 106 in December to 23 now, according to an Associated Press tally.
"If you have any, any kind of loyalty to the Democratic Party, perhaps you need to rethink your strategy and bow out gracefully in order to save this party from a disastrous end in November," Rep. William Lacy Clay (Mo.), an African American Obama supporter, said in an appeal to Clinton.
Clyburn accused Clinton and her husband yesterday of marginalizing black voters and opening a rift between her campaign and an African American Democratic base that strongly backed Bill Clinton's presidency. Some surrogates in her camp are trying to render Obama unelectable against the Republican nominee so she could run for the Democratic nomination in 2012, he suggested. The discussion flared up yet again when Bill Clinton suggested this week that Obama's campaign had played "the race card" after the former president compared the candidate to Jesse Jackson after the South Carolina primary.
"We keep talking as if it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter that Obama gets 92 percent of the black vote, because since he only got 35 percent of the white vote, he's in trouble," Clyburn said. "Well, Hillary Clinton only got 8 percent of the black vote. . . . It's almost saying black people don't matter. The only thing that matters is how white people respond. And that's what bothered me. I think I matter."
"When something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public, that's not a failure to communicate," Wright said in an appearance with Bill Moyers. "Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a 'wackadoodle.' "
Both campaigns sought yesterday to tamp down a race controversy, appealing for Democrats to stay focused on winning back the White House.
"I never believe in irreparable breaches. I'm a big believer in reconciliation and redemption," Obama told reporters in Indianapolis. "So, look, this has been a fierce contest. I've said repeatedly: Come August, there will be a whole lot of people standing on a stage with a lot of balloons and confetti raining down on the Democratic nominee, and people are going to be excited about taking on John McCain in November."
Campaigning for Clinton in Gary, Ind., yesterday, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio), who is black, said she does not share her colleagues' concerns. "I don't think Bill and Hillary Clinton will 'do anything' to win this election," she said. "They are trying to be successful, but I disagree they will do anything or they are trying to hurt Barack Obama." She added that black voters "are not a monolith, and we recognize the importance of this election."
There are signs that the anger voiced by some African Americans is beginning to extend to the Democratic donor base. Campaign finance records released this week show that a growing number of Clinton's early supporters migrated to Obama in March, after he achieved 11 straight victories. Of those who had previously made maximum contributions to Clinton, 73 wrote their first checks to Obama in March. The reverse was not true: Of those who had made large contributions to Obama last year, none wrote checks to Clinton in March.
"I think she is destroying the Democratic Party," said New York lawyer Daniel Berger, who had backed Clinton with the maximum allowable donation of $2,300. "That there's no way for her to win this election except by destroying [Obama], I just don't like it. So in my own little way, I'm trying to send her a message."
The message came in the form of a $2,300 contribution to Obama.
Donors are not the only ones who have made the leap. Gabriel Guerra-Mondragón served as an ambassador to Chile during Bill Clinton's presidency, considered himself a close friend of Sen. Clinton, and became a "Hill-raiser" by bringing in about $500,000 for her presidential bid.
But he had a fitful few weeks as the battle between Clinton and Obama turned increasingly negative. Last week, he decided he had seen enough.
"We're just bleeding each other out," Guerra-Mondragón said when asked why he had decided to join Obama's finance committee. "Looking at it as coldly as I can, I just don't see how Senator Clinton can overcome Senator Obama with delegates and popular votes. I want this fight to be over -- the quicker, the better."
The Obama converts include William Louis-Dreyfus. The billionaire New York financier said he had been impressed by Clinton's performance in the Senate and distressed by eight years of the Bush administration when he donated the maximum to her campaign last August. Then, he said, he began watching more closely.
"However much one might have supported the Clintons, or one might support the usual suspects in the Democratic Party, I began to believe Obama represents a new approach. He gives off such a sense of relevance that he's sort of irresistible," Louis-Dreyfus said.
He also expressed, as did other big givers who crossed to Obama, exasperation about the tone of the Clinton campaign and frustration with the candidate herself.
"At the end of the day, all she had to do was open her mouth for me not to believe her," Louis-Dreyfus said.
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr., traveling with Clinton, and Alec MacGillis, traveling with Obama, contributed to this report.