Before the sun rose yesterday, members of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign team were confronted with the kind of attack that most infuriates them: one questioning the character of Clinton and her husband.
To make matters worse, it came from David Geffen, the Hollywood producer who was once a big supporter of the Clintons but is now backing Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.
What followed was a caustic exchange between the Clinton and Obama campaigns that highlighted the sensitivity in the Clinton camp to Obama's rapid rise as a rival and his positioning as a fresh face unburdened by the baggage borne by Clinton, the senator from New York.
It began with a column in The New York Times by Maureen Dowd, in which Geffen said the Clintons lie "with such ease, it's troubling" and that the Clinton political operation "is going to be very unpleasant and unattractive and effective." Geffen called Bill Clinton a "reckless guy" who had not changed in the last six years, and suggested Hillary Clinton was too scripted.
In a statement at 9:46 a.m., the Clinton campaign called on Obama to sever his ties to Geffen and return the $1.3 million that Geffen helped raise Tuesday at a reception in Beverly Hills.
"While Sen. Obama was denouncing slash-and-burn politics yesterday, his campaign's finance chair was viciously and personally attacking Sen. Clinton and her husband," said Howard Wolfson, the Clinton campaign communications director.
Bill Burton, a spokesman for Obama, called it "ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen" when he was "raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln Bedroom."
The punch and counterpunch went on all day, transfixing the political world and overshadowing a gathering of all the Democratic candidates except Obama, an Illinois senator, at a union-sponsored forum in Nevada at which Hillary Clinton faced some criticism about her Iraq stance.
Up to now, the presidential campaign has been a relatively polite affair, and the day marked an abrupt change of tone that exposed the intensity of the bad feeling bubbling just below the surface in both parties.
In an interview with ABC News in which Cheney was asked about McCain's criticism of Rumsfeld, he responded by bringing up other McCain comments critical of the vice president's role in managing the war in Iraq, and said McCain had subsequently said he was sorry.
In response, McCain seemed to go out of his way to re-emphasize his assertion that Rumsfeld would be remembered as one of the worst defense secretaries in history, and to criticize the Bush administration more generally when he appeared at a news conference in Los Angeles to discuss initiatives to deal with global warming.
"I would assess this administration's record on global warming as terrible," McCain said.
After the news conference, McCain said to a reporter, "Sir, I stand by my comments about Secretary Rumsfeld."
Similarly, Geffen affirmed his view of the Clintons, issuing a statement saying he had been quoted accurately and that Wolfson was wrong in calling him the finance chairman of the Obama campaign (he said he had no formal role).
Hillary Clinton, asked yesterday afternoon if Obama should denounce the Geffen remarks, expressed general disapproval with the remarks while also defending her husband, which drew cheers from the audience of union members she was addressing.
"I want to run a very positive campaign, and I sure don't want Democrats or the supporters of Democrats to be engaging in the politics of personal destruction," she said at the forum of Democratic presidential candidates in Carson City, Nev. "I think we should stay focused on what we're going to do for America. And you know, I believe Bill Clinton was a good president, and I'm very proud of the record of his two terms."
As he arrived in Iowa late yesterday afternoon, Obama was questioned by reporters about the clash. "It's not clear to me why I would be apologizing for someone else's remarks," Obama said. "My sense is that Mr. Geffen may have differences with the Clintons, but that doesn't really have anything to do with our campaign."