Hillary’s Special Appearance Before the Congressional Black Caucus

Rebecca Sinderbrand sends in this dispatch from Washington:

Hillary Clinton received a polite reception at the Congressional Black Caucus's Annual Legislative Conference – with most members in attendance applauding and joining in the obligatory standing ovation – but she didn't quite capture the crowd; a few grim-faced members of the audience pointedly refused to rise or cheer.

The senator has been a regular attendee at the conference for years, but her appearance at today's forum – the only stand-alone invite offered to any of the 2008 candidates – has been a source of controversy among many of the politicians and activists who've gathered here in Washington. That's because the CBC's own regulations technically limit participation in these kinds of policy discussions to the 43 current members of the caucus.

The Clinton invite broke with that practice, and critics have taken aim at what they view as the politicization of the caucus, which has traditionally taken a nonpartisan approach during the campaign season. (Clinton actually has a slight edge over Barack Obama in support from current CBC members, although the overwhelming majority are officially undecided.)

The appearance offers an even bigger advantage this year, since this weekend's conference is likely the biggest primary-season platform for reaching many of the groups affiliated with the caucus; most of the major Democratic candidates (including Clinton, Obama and John Edwards) decided to skip the CBC's presidential debate, scheduled to air on FOX.

Despite the controversy over the invitation, the actual forum was uniformly friendly for Clinton. All of the questions, many of them posed by handpicked audience members, were softballs on domestic issues; most of the senator's responses drawn from her standard stump speech. Clinton also referred to the 1957 desegregation of the Little Rock school system and the recent controversy in Jena, La. as "bookends" in the fight for equal rights.

The capacity crowd included at least a dozen CBC members, including Brooklyn's Rep. Yvette Clark ("Brooklyn and Queens are in the house!" said Clinton) and political luminaries like Jesse Jackson.

The public reviews were positive. "She did very well. I don't think it's a problem [that she's not a member]," said Rep. John Lewis. "Sen. Clinton has a long history of activism here."

But one congressional staffer who asked to remain anonymous because his boss has yet to endorse a candidate gave a more terse assessment: "Rehearsed."

Although Clinton was the only presidential candidate granted her own Q&A session at the conference, at least one rival will make an appearance later today: CBC member Barack Obama will lead the group's climate change panel discussion this afternoon.