President Obama's White House found itself on the defensive Thursday over backroom efforts to intervene in the Colorado Senate primary even as fallout continued from its attempt to nudge Rep. Joe Sestak out of the Pennsylvania Senate race.
White House officials confirmed they had explored the possibility of an administration job for Andrew Romanoff, the former speaker of the Colorado House, if he would abandon his challenge to Sen. Michael Bennet in the Democratic primary there.
The move was essentially similar to the unsuccessful overtures the White House made to persuade Sestak to drop out of the primary against Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.).
Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that Obama had not been "aware of the individual circumstances" in such efforts.
In a statement, the White House said it "wanted to determine if it was possible to avoid a costly battle between two supporters" when deputy chief of staff Jim Messina telephoned Romanoff last September to see if he would be interested in a job with a federal international development agency.
Romanoff said no and remains in the Colorado race; the primary is Aug. 10. Both the White House and Romanoff say there was no job offer in his case.
Last Friday, the White House acknowledged that former President Bill Clinton, acting at the direction of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, suggested to Sestak an unpaid position on a federal advisory board if he would stay in his House seat and not run for the Senate.
Sestak declined and defeated the five-term Specter May 18.
"The Washington establishment has somehow gotten more focused on politics while working people are getting slammed," Sestak said Thursday during a taping for the Larry Kane: Voice of Reason public-affairs show to be televised Sunday night.
It was during an interview with Kane on Feb. 18 that Sestak, in response to a question, said he had been offered a job by the White House to get out of the race. He would not divulge details for more than three months.
Sestak said during Thursday's taping that he had not thought it was proper to talk about a "private" conversation with Clinton. He said he did not think the offer was criminal.
"If I thought anything had been done wrong, I would have talked about it in a heartbeat" earlier, Sestak said.
Earlier Wednesday, before the Romanoff news broke, Gibbs was pressed further at his daily news briefing about Sestak. Among other things, reporters wanted to know which advisory board had been proposed to him, why it took so long for the White House to come clean on the matter, and whether more than one attempt had been made to influence Sestak. Last week's memo from the White House counsel's office said only that "efforts were made" last June and July, but Sestak says there was only the one call from Clinton.
Gibbs deflected all the questions.
The two episodes have focused the spotlight on White House political tactics five months from midterm elections that will decide control of Congress and serve as a referendum on Obama.
Presidents of both parties have used political appointments to clear a primary field for or reward allies. But Republicans are demanding a special prosecutor or other independent investigation, citing a federal law that makes it illegal to offer a position with the intent of influencing an election.
"Just how deep does the Obama White House's efforts to invoke Chicago-style politics for the purpose of manipulating elections really go?" Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the senior Republican on the House oversight committee, said Thursday. He called on White House counsel Robert Bauer to disclose all attempts to persuade candidates to drop election bids.
So far, the Justice Department has rejected appointing a special prosecutor. Even some top lawyers from the George W. Bush administration say no crime has been committed, but the focus on the gritty business of politics has dinged Obama's image as a reformer.
Unlike Sestak, Romanoff never answered questions about his White House offer, though the Denver Post first reported it last year using unnamed sources.
But in the wake of the Sestak case, Romanoff faced increasing pressure, and he issued a statement Wednesday night that said: "Mr. Messina also suggested three positions that might be available to me were I not pursuing the Senate race. He added that he could not guarantee my appointment to any of these positions. At no time was I promised a job, nor did I request Mr. Messina's assistance in obtaining one."
Romanoff also released an email from Messina that detailed the positions: two executive posts with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.