Hillary Will Never Say Die, But Tuesday Could Be Her Last Gasp
It did not look like a political wake. Senator Hillary Clinton emerged into a basketball stadium in Houston wearing a bright red jacket, beaming broadly and waving at thousands of screaming supporters.
Gene Green, a Texan congressman, introduced her with confident words predicting her return to the White House. 'I think we have a president standing on this platform! The next president of the United States!' he shouted. Clinton carried on the mood of hopeful triumph. She skilfully worked the crowd, hushing it with touching anecdotes and sparking cheers with exhortations to support her. 'It is beginning to grow,' she said of her Texas campaign. 'We are moving!'
But the cracks in Clinton's bid for the presidency were also on display. Though 6,000 people had come to the Delmar Sports Complex in the Houston suburbs, there were many empty blue seats in the stadium. High up in the top tier, whole rows went unfilled.
Clinton is in the battle of her life and the odds are against her. And it is not only a fight to be the next occupant of the White House. It is also about the legacy that Clinton and her husband, Bill, have left America and whether they still have a role to play.
They are also willing to play nasty to emerge victorious. American TV screens are now full of one of the most aggressive attack ads in recent history. Dubbed 'Children', it in effect suggests that a vote for Barack Obama will lead to such weakness on national security that the American homeland will be in peril. It is shot over pictures of sleeping babies and it appeals directly to the 'security moms' demographic that Clinton needs.
But the facts on the ground remain the same. It has finally come down to this: on Tuesday, Clinton needs to win Texas and Ohio. Anything less could force her from the race and spell the end of the Clinton dynasty. The revered Clinton brand, once so confident of a second act, is now desperately fighting to stop the curtain coming down early.
Even her most ardent fans have doubts. Toy Halsey, 67, had waited for hours to see Clinton in Houston. But would Clinton win Texas? 'I hope so,' Halsey said, and then looked unsure. 'It is going to be hard,' she admitted. Later, as Clinton's speech wore on, a steady trickle of supporters left early. They were like loyal fans near the end of a football match ducking out because they knew their side was going to lose.
It was not meant to be like this. It has been forgotten in the rush to write the Clintons' political obituaries, but for most of last year Clinton ran a flawless campaign. She dominated through the spring and summer and early autumn, fending off the challenge from the upstart Obama. Then, during a televised debate on 30 October, she fluffed a question about driving licences for illegal immigrants. Suddenly it was open season on Clinton. First came defeat in Iowa. Then followed a disastrous performance in South Carolina. She steadied herself on Super Tuesday, before the momentum behind Obama propelled him to 11 straight victories.
Now Clinton's presidential hopes are pinned on winning Texas and Ohio. Yet neither looks certain. She still leads in Ohio, where her blue-collar support seems to be giving her a narrow lead. But, in Texas, Obama has now nudged ahead, mobilising his familiar combination of black, educated professional and young voters. If previous contests are a guide, once Obama has overturned a Clinton lead in a state, he tends to win it. 'Times have changed. The reality is that the Clinton campaign is now in a place that they never expected to be in,' said Professor Shawn Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.
If Clinton's ambitions for the 2008 White House do die in Texas, it will be a fitting full stop. For it was here, back in 1972, that a youthful Hillary Rodham and her boyfriend, Bill Clinton, worked on voter registration for the anti-Vietnam war candidacy of George McGovern. That was her first big political experience in the field. Now, as she seeks to be America's first woman President, the Clintons are back where it all began.
Her campaign here is pulling out all the stops. As Clinton arrived at the Houston rally, it would be her third speech of the day. Her voice was not just hoarse because of recent campaigning. It has been hoarse for weeks as one of the most gruelling battles in memory has played out across the country. Yet Clinton herself still seemed on top form. Her stump speech was powerful and delivered with enthusiasm. The crowd responded too. The cheers, amplified by the small indoor venue, were deafening.
Nor is Clinton alone in her fight. Chelsea Clinton has been cutting a trail across American campuses. And, of course, Bill Clinton has been pounding through Ohio and Texas on a punishing schedule. He can make up to half-a-dozen appearances a day, on the stump for his wife in a bid to return to the lost glories of his own days in the White House.
Yet the Bill Clinton campaigning now is different from the one whose actions in South Carolina - playing the race card and talking about himself more than his spouse - helped derail her candidacy. In a rally on a college campus in Austin, he even said she would be a better president than he had been. 'I believe that if you elect her... you will have more jobs, more broadly based prosperity, during her presidency than when I was president. You will never have a chance to vote for a better change-maker,' he said.
Such a profound shift shows how much has changed. Behind the scenes, Bill Clinton remains as powerful as ever, playing a key role in a recent shake-up of her top staff. But in public he has backed off from 1990s nostalgia; now the focus is not on a return to the prosperity of the Clintonian past, but a desperate bid to convince Americans that the Clintons remain relevant.
It is no longer an easy sell. At the Austin rally, a group of Obama-ite students heckled the former President. One of Clinton's prominent Austin supporters, county commissioner Margaret Gomez, made her pitch with a metaphor that seemed to spring out of a high-school prom. 'When you get to the front of the line, you don't let a nice cute guy take your place,' she told the crowd of students. 'Especially if he's going to whisper sweet nothings in your ear.'
But that nice, cute guy is doing well in Texas and his sweet nothings have an eager audience. A day before Clinton appeared in Houston, Obama addressed a crowd of thousands at the small college town of San Marcos. It was an enormous rally, planned with the precision of a rock concert. The town's main street was shut down, snipers patrolled the rooftops and hundreds of people crowded the edge of the outdoor event, desperate to get a peek at Obama. Nearly all of them were young. 'His coolness is definitely better than Clinton's,' said photography student Mitchell Ahrens, 22.
The brutal fact is that no one in Clinton's campaign predicted the emergence of the Obama phenomenon. It was a staggering oversight and blindsided their otherwise enormous efforts. Even now, with the pundits saying her campaign is in ruins, Clinton's bid for the presidency would be stellar in a normal race. She raised an astonishing $35m in February. She speaks to huge crowds. Yet this is no longer a normal race. At each turn, 'Obama-mania' is beating her hands down. Obama is expecting to have raised more than $50m last month. His crowds across Texas - and everywhere else in America - have shattered records.
Now that the Clintons are fighting for their political future, they have belatedly realised that Hillary is battling not just an opponent, but a fully fledged movement. So they have gone negative. After all, there is little left to lose.
Her brutal new attack ad in Texas is simply the latest line in a series of nasty volleys at Obama. But it does set a new standard for naked aggression. The advert features a crisis hotline ringing in the middle of the night at the White House. 'It's 3am and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?' the voiceover asks ominously over shots of sleeping babies.
The underlying message is stark: electing Obama will allow terrorists to hurt your children. But that ad is just the surface. Photos of Obama dressed up in traditional Somali garb on a trip to Africa surfaced on the infamous Drudge Report website.
The Clinton campaign has also stepped up attacks on the media for giving Obama an easy time, while pushing claims that Obama had plagiarised speeches and had borrowed the tactics of Republican bte noire Karl Rove in spreading misinformation. It has rapidly become a street fight, and it could get even dirtier.
The Clintons have prepared for this campaign since 2000; they are not about to let it go without using every tactic in their disposal. 'They don't give up. They don't know how to,' said Bowler. And yet the countdown has begun. Tuesday's vote looms in Texas and Ohio. If she loses one of those states, the pressure for her to quit will be immense.
But this fight may not be over. Clinton could win both her target states and spark yet another comeback. Or she could ignore the advice of her close advisers and fight on to Pennsylvania in six weeks' time. Late last week, top Clinton staffers were briefing reporters that she might fight on even if she just won one state this week. If that happens, she would probably face a revolt from party elders desperate to avoid a divided convention in August.
But she could ignore them and keep fighting with everything she has left. She could go to the courts to try to reinstate the currently discounted delegates of Florida and Michigan. Her team has already raised the prospect of suing in Texas, whose election rules are seen as too arcane. And that is before Texans have even voted.
So far, Clinton has given no sign that defeat is seen as likely, no sign that this race is Obama's and that her final hope might actually lie 2012. Or that her time has finally passed.
In Houston, she was still asking her supporters for help in shaping the America to come, not looking back at her achievements. She still has a vision of a Clinton Era Mark II.
She ended her rally with a loud appeal. 'Are you ready?' Let's go out and make history together!' The crowd dutifully roared its approval. But the empty seats above the cheerers delivered a different kind of verdict. The days of the Clintons making history might soon be over.