The White House scrambled Thursday to explain new revelations of political dealmaking, defending attempts to steer state primary races but saying the president was unaware an aide had urged a Colorado Democrat to seek a federal job rather than run.
With Republicans denouncing "Chicago-style politics" and accusing President Barack Obama of breaking his clean-politics promises, White House aides mustered a multi-pronged response. The White House has the right to try to avoid messy Democratic primaries, they said, but Obama leaves the details to underlings. They also offered more information about the Colorado Senate matter after being accused of trying to hush a similar Pennsylvania episode that broke wider open last week.
Presidents, as leaders of their parties, "have long had an interest in ensuring that supporters didn't run against each other in contested elections," press secretary Robert Gibbs said. But when it comes to personally persuading a candidate to step aside, he said, Obama "is not aware of the individual circumstances."
Political insiders say it's naive to think that presidents and other top officials of both parties don't sometimes try to help the strongest candidates win nominations with a minimum of cost and trouble. Nonetheless, even Obama supporters agree that the latest revelations could dent his claims to run a more transparent government and his ability to focus on issues such as the Gulf oil spill and the economy.
The episodes also fuel growing public resentment of Washington-centered, top-down politics. Voters in several states have rejected establishment candidates from both parties this year, nominating insurgents with grass-roots pedigrees.
For the second time in a week, the White House acknowledged that a top Obama associate had urged a potential Democratic Senate candidate to accept a federal position rather than challenge the president's preferred nominee.
The first case involved an unsuccessful bid to the clear the Pennsylvania primary path for Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter. The White House acknowledged last Friday that it had turned to former President Bill Clinton to urge Rep. Joe Sestak to stay in the House and accept an unpaid presidential advisory post rather than challenge Specter.
Sestak declined, and defeated Specter in last month's Senate primary.
The White House acknowledged Thursday that it had contacted former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff about possible administration jobs in hopes that he would not challenge Sen. Michael Bennet in the state's Aug. 10 Senate primary.
Both the White House and Romanoff said there was no job offer, and Romanoff remains in the race.
Gibbs said Romanoff had applied for a position at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the transition period before Obama took office in January 2009.
White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina "called and e-mailed Romanoff last September to see if he was still interested in a position at USAID, or if, as had been reported, he was running for the U.S. Senate. Months earlier, the president had endorsed Sen. Michael Bennet for the Colorado seat, and Messina wanted to determine if it was possible to avoid a costly battle between two supporters," Gibbs said.
Romanoff said he was committed to the Senate race and was "no longer interested in working for the administration, and that ended the discussion," Gibbs said.
While hardly a full-blown scandal, the Romanoff and Sestak matters are irksome and ill-timed for Obama. More insight into the White House's political practices — possibly stemming from government-intercepted phone calls — may come to light as former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, goes on trial in Chicago. He is accused of scheming to profit from his ability to fill Obama's old Senate seat, and some of the president's top advisers from Chicago have been subpoenaed.
The Sestak and Romanoff episodes also force the White House to seek sympathetic explanations from politicians it has opposed. And it gives Republicans an easy opening to chide Obama about his campaign pledges to rise above old-style, backroom political dealmaking.
"Just how deep does the Obama White House's effort to invoke Chicago-style politics for the purpose of manipulating elections really go?" said Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Offering politicians attractive alternatives to an election bid is hardly new. Obama himself engaged in it, with little fuss, when he named then-Utah Gov. and potential GOP 2012 presidential rival Jon Huntsman as ambassador to China.
Bennet, who was appointed to the Colorado Senate seat that he's now trying to win in this year's elections, kept his distance from the White House contacts with Romanoff.
"Conversations Michael had with the White House focused on the president's continued support for his campaign, regardless of what career path Speaker Romanoff chose to follow," said campaign spokesman Trevor Kincaid.
Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt in Denver contributed to this report.
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