MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The growing animosity between the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton escalated even further today. The Obama camp accused their Clinton counterparts of divisive tactics for allegedly distributing a photograph of Obama from a trip to Africa in 2006 in which he is wearing traditional Somali dress. The photo surfaced on the Drudge Report Web site, which said it came from, quote, "stressed Clinton staffers." The Clinton campaign called it an attempt to distract from the real issues that voters care about.
NPR's Mara Liasson joins us now to referee this latest battle.
And, Mara, this photo is from a trip that Barack Obama took to Kenya, and we see him - he's wearing a white turban, he has a white robe wrapped around his polo shirt and his khakis. And now, it's led to this war of words.
LIASSON: That's right. Drudge - Matt Drudge claims that he got this from, as you said, stressed Clinton staffers - plural. And that one of them wrote in an e-mail, wouldn't we be seeing this on the cover of every magazine if it were Hillary Clinton?
Now, the Obama campaign reacted very, very swiftly and harshly. The campaign manager for Obama, David Plouffe, said this was the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering that he's seen from either party in this election. So they're quite angry about it. They think it's divisive. And that it was done purposely to create the impression that he's Muslim.
BLOCK: They also note that this garb was a gift from people in the region he was visiting. That Obama was encouraged to try it on, and he did. What's been the response from the Clinton campaign, Mara?
LIASSON: Well, the - Clinton's new campaign manager, Maggie Williams, responded equally forcefully, saying that if Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed. And she said, well, Hillary Clinton wears traditional clothing wherever she visits, and those photos are published.
Howard Wolfson, who's the communications director, was asked about this in a conference call and, interestingly enough, Maggie Williams didn't address the question of whether Clinton staffers, in fact, sent it to Drudge. But Howard Wolfson was asked about it, and here's what he said.
Mr. HOWARD WILSON (Communications Director, Clinton Campaign): I've never seen that picture before. I'm not aware that anyone here has. I'm not aware that anyone has sent any such e-mail. I'm aware that the Drudge Report says that there was. I'm aware that the Obama campaign has decided to issue its statement. I think our statement is clear. We believe that this is an attempt by the Obama campaign to distract from the serious issues.
LIASSON: So, got it. They weren't aware. That's the operative word here.
BLOCK: And no way to prove a negative, that they didn't send it. Mara, there was a hoax e-mail that was circulated earlier this year that falsely claimed that Barack Obama is Muslim, and that led to repercussions in the Clinton campaign.
LIASSON: Two Iowa volunteers for Clinton had to resign because they circulated this e-mail. This e-mail is still circulating. I mean, I get e-mails all the time talking about how Barack Obama is Muslim. As a matter of fact, Obama talks about it on the campaign trail warning people, if you get this e-mail, let's set the record straight, he's Christian. He never is a Muslim. There are conservative Web sites who say that he is a covert Muslim operative.
So this is a rumor that has been circulated for a long time. And as a matter of fact, even Bob Kerry, former Nebraska senator who is a Clinton supporter, repeated a discredited accusation that Obama had attended a, quote, "secular madrassa," when he was a child in Indonesia. So this is out there, and the Obama campaign doesn't like it one bit.
BLOCK: You know, it was not all that long ago, Mara, it was a matter of days that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were side by side in a debate shaking hands, and everything was pretty amicable.
LIASSON: Well, for that moment, it was. But on the campaign trail, she's become quite tough on him. She's accused him of using shameful campaign tactics. She said shame on you, Barack Obama, for sending out leaflets about her positions on NAFTA and health care. She gave a foreign policy speech today where she called him reckless and naïve, not ready to be commander in chief. She didn't do that on Thursday, but they do have a debate tomorrow night in Cleveland, and she might bring up those kinds of attacks again.
BLOCK: And huge primaries are coming up in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday. Mara, thanks so much.
LIASSON: Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: NPR's Mara Liasson.
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