WASHINGTON – Campaign aides for the leading Democratic presidential candidates have been working together on how to keep their bosses apart — at least for a while.
Representatives for Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards contacted Democratic National Committee executive direction Tom McMahon to request a meeting. The top advisers to Clinton and Obama then secretly came to McMahon's office together Wednesday and asked him to bring some order to the schedule of joint appearances.
In the next three months, there are two candidate forums scheduled in Nevada, a debate in New Hampshire and a debate in South Carolina. More gatherings are in the works for the year.
The candidates are concerned about fitting all the joint appearances into their schedules, but are afraid to turn down invitations and upset the influential hosts who sponsor the gatherings. They want the party to set the limits so they don't have to, something that DNC officials said they are exploring with the nine candidates.
All the candidates are scheduled to speak to the DNC's winter meeting Friday and Saturday.
David Bonior, campaign manager for 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards, said Thursday there should be debates but argued for some order to the schedule that is fair to everyone.
"There are a lot of them," Bonior said. "You could spend your whole candidacy doing that and there are a lot of things campaigns need to do, like raising money and meeting with ministers and other people."
The Clinton and Obama campaigns preferred to keep their involvement in the process under wraps. They declined comment on the meeting. But others with knowledge of it said top aides at the rival camps — Patti Solis Doyle for Clinton, David Plouffe for Obama — met with McMahon.
Edwards' Jonathan Prince, who lives in New York City, was on the phone call to set up the meeting but did not attend.
The leading campaigns are struggling over whether to attend a Feb. 21 forum in Carson City, Nev., sponsored by the state Democratic Party and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
So far, only New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack have said they will participate, although no candidate has declined. If they do, they risk alienating the union, the party and the state's top Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Nevada party spokesman Jamal Simmons rejects the notion that it's asking a lot for the candidates to come so far for a forum 11 months before the first votes are cast. He said voters want to hear their ideas.
"Nevada should not be penalized for having its act together and coming up with a schedule of events early," Simmons said. "We certainly think people will make their way to California for fundraising trips. There's a lot you can do in the West."
DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney would not comment on Wednesday's meeting, but said most of the campaigns have approached the party about the issue.
"Our inclination is to talk with all the campaigns, possibly set up a meeting and look into what's the best way to proceed," Finney said.
It may be difficult to find agreement among the growing list of campaigns. Some who are trailing in the polls see the forums as a chance to trumpet their candidacy, often before a national television audience that might otherwise be focused on the front-runners.
"We look forward to every opportunity we have," said Vilsack spokesman Josh Earnest, although he acknowledged that the travel involved is demanding. "It's part of the job. It's the price of admission to the presidential race."
Some other campaigns were miffed at being left out of Wednesday's discussion, but McMahon appeared to have smoothed over their concerns by vowing that all candidates would be involved in developing any possible DNC plan.
The party leaders also finalized a provision that would withhold delegates from any candidate who campaigns in a state that moves up its primary or caucus in violation of the DNC calendar. There was no debate on that point, attendees said.