Election 2008

Hillary Clinton Is Down But Not Out

As Barack Obama wins five weekend contests, Hillary Clinton reorganizes and plans for the Texas, Ohio, and Penn. primaries.
The race to the Democratic nomination has hit a turning point. As Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) won five contests this weekend -- Maine, Washington, Louisiana, Nebraska and the Virgin Islands -- Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) reshuffled her staff, replacing campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle with longtime aid Maggie Williams.

Obama won Maine's caucus on Sunday 59 percent to 40 percent for Clinton. On Saturday, he won Washington's caucus 68 percent to 31 percent for Clinton. He won the Nebraska caucus 68 percent to 32 percent for Clinton. He won Louisiana's primary 57 percent to 36 percent for Clinton. And he won the Virgin Islands caucus 90 percent to 7 percent for Clinton. All these contests had approximately 455,000 voters participating.

The Obama campaign is on a roll. In contrast, the Clinton campaign is down, but hardly out. According to the Obama campaign, it now leads in delegates, 1,030 to 946 for Clinton. But other sources, such as "Democratic Convention Watch, a website, say Clinton continues to lead with 1,108 delegates, compared to 1,063 for Obama. To win the nomination, 2,025 delegates are needed.

No matter who is winning the delegate count, what is clear is the Democratic presidential race is moving into uncharted territory, with the biggest question being can Clinton emerge weeks from now as the nominee if she wins the three last big states: Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania? Ohio and Texas vote on March 4.

The race to the Democratic nomination was supposed to be over by now. At least that is what Hillary Clinton's campaign assumed going into Super Tuesday. The resignation of her campaign manager is a signal that the campaign's early assumptions did not play out. But now, as Barack Obama begins a month where he is winning and is expected to win most small-state contests, the question is can the Clinton campaign rebuild and recover before those big state votes. In part, that transition is already underway.

Days before Super Tuesday', Clinton retooled her stump speech. This weekend in Virginia, which votes with three other states on Tuesday, she drew on that new pitch speaking passionately about the "genius of our constitution ... that was crafted to expand as our hearts do, allowing each generation to reach a more perfect union." This is a notable softening of her tone and a departure from earlier speeches that often were heavy with policy prescriptions. While Obama's speeches have lacked specifics compared to Clinton, she has struggled to match his inspirational tone. She may have found a balance.

Still, political perceptions can be cruel. There is no doubt it hurts the Clinton campaign to see headlines that Obama swept Saturday's contests in Washington, Louisiana, Nebraska and the Virgin Islands and Sunday's caucus in Maine. Those come after other painful news that she personally lent her campaign $5 million, that some staffers were not getting paid and her campaign manager's resignation. The next locales to vote are Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., whose elections are on Tuesday. News organizations such as The New York Times say Obama has an edge in these contests.

Well-connected and perhaps cynical sources in the Clinton camp said these races hardly matter, because she can win the nomination on or after March 4 when the remaining big states vote. The Clinton campaign no doubt takes comfort in the demographics of Ohio and Pennsylvania, both large industrial states, and Texas, with its large Latino population. After all, she won California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, precedents that cannot be ignored.

But 2008 has been a season that has been unkind to predictions. Across the political aisle, Rudy Giuliani bet he could skip the early contests and rebound a month later in Florida, which John McCain won, pushing Rudy out of the race. It remains to be seen if Clinton can keep campaigning hard for another month - as Obama grabs the headlines -- and come out on top. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton has shown she is a very tough and enduring candidate.

The next month may not be smooth sailing for Obama either. While his recent caucus wins in Washington, Nebraska, Maine and several Super Tuesday states just days before show a grassroots operation that Democratic Party officials cannot fail to notice, it remains to be seen how party stalwarts will react to this powerful new force. One fifth of those voting at the Democratic National Convention are so-called super delegates, a mix of Democratic National Committee members, elected federal and state office holders, party officials, donors and other luminaries. Clinton and Obama have launched campaigns within their campaigns to get pledges from these delegates. While the Obama campaign has been touting its progress, Clinton has had an edge because of lingering ties from Bill Clinton's presidency.

Then there is the looming fight over Florida and Michigan, which the DNC stripped of its delegates after they held unauthorized early primary votes. All Democratic candidates pledged not to campaign in those states, and the only candidate on the ballot in Michigan was Clinton. Florida, however, had all the candidates on the ballot and labor unions supporting Clinton worked for her, winning the non-binding vote. Clinton held a victory rally there and said she would work to seat a Florida delegation, causing much angst in DNC ranks.

Sources close to DNC Chair Howard Dean said he has drawn a line against seating any delegation that could swing the nomination. But there has been talk in DNC circles of those two states holding late-season caucuses, another intangible variable that could put many more delegates in play.

But perhaps the most important factor facing both campaigns and the remaining Democratic voters is how the candidates will position -- or reposition -- themselves in coming days and weeks.

Clinton has updated her pitch, asking Americans to "give us the child who wants to learn, give us the people in need of work, give us the veteran who need our care, give us this economy to rebuild and this war to end, give us this nation to lift, this world to lead, this moment to seize. I know we're ready." In contrast, Obama has stuck with his basic message of bringing leadership that will forge solutions from a coalition of Democrats, independents and some Republicans who are not tied to the past.

Another factor is how the candidates will respond to John McCain, the Republican's likely nominee who is an untraditional Republican. While McCain has caused much consternation among conservatives, his sometimes-maverick stands endear him to some independents, where Obama has also drawn support. Both Democratic candidates now mention McCain in their speeches, and draw contrasts, saying each would be the best candidate to beat him in the fall. Yet those contrasts, while vivid on issues such as Iraq and tax cuts, are only just beginning and are not well defined.

What Obama and Clinton each must do to tie up the nomination is bring their campaign into new orbits. Obama's recent victories may be accomplishing this, but so too could Clinton's new pitch and big state focus on the campaign trail.

Yet there is still more each could do to satisfy voters. Both could be articulate in areas where they have lagged, such as Obama's lack of specificity -- compared to Clinton -- on what kind of policies his new politics of unity would offer. In contrast, Clinton could say why her team of already-experienced White House veterans would do better at governing in new and needed directions than Obama. She also has to distinguish herself from McCain, as many of her foreign policy votes are not far from his record -- and, right or wrong, foreign policy is his strongest credential.

Campaigning is not governing, but observing how candidates respond to unforeseen events, such as a longer nominating contest, a likely GOP nominee, and a worsening economy should give voters more than enough information and impressions to make a choice. As the nominating process enters a new phase, the candidates and campaigns must react and adapt. If and how they do so will be a telling sign of their leadership abilities. Their political fate may depend on it.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of "What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election," with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).