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Loyalty and the Clintons: how far does it go?

If loyalty is the currency of politics, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton should have a full coffer to tap for her U.S. presidential bid.

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks at a "Hillary Live" fundraising event at the Wilshire Theater in Beverly Hills, California April 3, 2008. (REUTERS/Mark Avery)

But the former first lady and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who prize loyalty from their wide national support base, are struggling to keep that allegiance alive at a time when they need it the most.

Clinton is fighting for her political life, trying to sway so-called superdelegates -- party leaders and elected officials -- to stick with her in the race against front-runner and rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Clinton, observers say, is fiercely devoted to her staff, and both she and her husband expect and usually receive allegiance from their associates.

But ties to Bill Clinton's administration have not always translated into support for his wife's candidacy, to the frustration of the former first couple.

"They start with the assumption that anybody who was with them in the (previous Clinton) administration, should be with them now, and when people decide to go to Obama, most of those people are in pretty bad standing," said one former Clinton White House staffer, who asked not to be named.

Sen. Clinton, that official said, was more forgiving than her husband if a supporter comes back to the fold, as some have done after backing candidates such as former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who bowed out of the Democratic race to face Republican John McCain in the November election.

"She's not stupid. She would rather have talented staff come back than waste a lot of energy icing them."

But "icing" does take place.

When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former energy secretary and ambassador for Bill Clinton, endorsed Obama, he was tagged with a "Judas" label by an outraged member of the Clinton camp, former adviser James Carville.

"I believed that Richardson's appointments in Bill Clinton's administration and his longtime personal relationship with both Clintons ... merited a strong response," Carville wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.


Richardson, who dropped his own presidential bid earlier this year, said the loyalty argument had been taken too far.

"Carville and others say that I owe President Clinton's wife my endorsement because he gave me two jobs," he wrote in a separate Washington Post opinion piece.

"Do the people now attacking me recall that I ran for president, albeit unsuccessfully, against Senator Clinton? Was that also an act of disloyalty?"

Maybe not. But he probably shouldn't expect another Cabinet post if Sen. Clinton pulls off a victory.

Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas, said loyalty with the former first couple was not always a two-way street.

"They have historically, especially President Clinton, thrown people over the side when they were no longer of any use," he said.

Clinton supporters dispute that characterization.

"The Clintons, I think, are people who are loyal, but they have their eyes open," said Douglas Schoen, a former Clinton adviser, saying the two would not retain staff who became liabilities as President George W. Bush has done with officials such as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"The Bush family, perhaps in some ways to their credit but in the pragmatic political sense unwisely, reciprocate loyalty much more readily than the Clintons do," Buchanan said.

Clinton may be guilty of holding on to staff too long as well. She retained campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle until early February after a string of primary losses to Obama, eventually replacing her with another loyalist, Maggie Williams, who was a top aide to Clinton as first lady.

As she trails Obama in the race for delegates who determine the nomination, the big question now will be the faithfulness of the superdelegates, and the next state nominating contest in Pennsylvania on April 22 could be key.

"Even superdelegates who have committed themselves to Clinton will start bailing out if Obama comes close -- much less wins -- in Pennsylvania," said Fred Greenstein, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University.

"Politics also involves pragmatism, and that can call for switching."

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