Sometime in the early hours of Feb. 6, as the meaning of the Super Tuesday results became clear, Hillary Rodham Clinton morphed from front-runner into underdog. And her prospects — in the eyes of the delegate counters, pundits and electronic futures markets — have gone downhill from that moment.
But some Democratic insiders, despite the favorable light the current campaign narrative shines on Barack Obama, do not rule out that a Democratic race that has held nothing but surprises thus far might provide one more. With the primary calendar stretching out for months, the media focusing more intensely than ever on Obama and the Democratic Party’s rules under assault, some Democratic strategists say Clinton retains a path to victory — but little margin for error.
Strategists almost universally said Clinton’s only hope is to bring Obama down through more — and more direct — attacks on his readiness to lead. And if that works, Clinton’s road map to victory is simply to start winning. An unexpected victory in Wisconsin on Tuesday would restore her campaign’s momentum. And win or lose there, Clinton, as her campaign has acknowledged, must win Ohio and Texas on March 4.
Then, as the race stretches through the long spring of March, April, May and June, she needs to win the big state of Pennsylvania and — just as important — to win the argument about why she’s winning, the strategists said.
“Is she still in an uphill fight? Yes. But is it an implausible scenario? Absolutely not,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who advised New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
“She’s got to say, ‘I’m winning the hearts and minds of the middle-class Democrats; they’re the ones who are going to decide this race in the fall,’” Maslin said. “And she’s got to say, ‘I’m roughing this guy up for the first time, and it’s working. What do you think the Republicans are going to do to him?’”
(Not all Democrats are so sanguine. One former Clinton adviser, asked to outline a scenario for her victory, gamely did so and then paused. “My real opinion is, it ain’t gonna happen,” he said.)
There’s no secret to where Obama’s weakness lies: Every poll and strategists from both parties have long pointed to both his real and perceived lack of experience. But Clinton’s attempts to contrast her years in public life with his do not seem to have made an impact so far, and she may be forced to turn up the heat.
“She can’t win by affirmatively making the case for herself. Her vote ceiling has been reached, or she’s close to it,” said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic political consultant who is not supporting anyone in the race. “The best thing she can do is either discredit Obama or raise doubts about him.
“I hate to say it, but in certain respects, it’s using the Bush strategy against Kerry against Obama and raising doubts about his willingness to use force to keep the country safe,” he said.
“The Obama people and the pacifists will scream ‘scare tactics.’ But for a lot of people, that’s not scare tactics — they care about national security and the commander in chief responsibility,” Gerstein said.
Clinton’s second line of attack has been a variant on Walter Mondale’s famous jibe at Gary Hart: “Where’s the beef?” Clinton has tried, again without enough success, to paint Obama as a candidate of words rather than substance. Monday, Clinton aides said Obama’s echoing of a rhetorical riff of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick undermines his candidacy because “Sen. Obama’s campaign is largely premised on the strength of his rhetoric and his promises.”
A Democratic consultant (and Clinton supporter) in New York, Hank Sheinkopf, suggested Team Clinton take that line of argument a step further and compare Obama directly to Patrick, who some critics say has failed to live up to the promise of his rhetoric.
“You have to run the anti-Deval Patrick campaign,” he said. “He’s sure done a brilliant job of governing.”
“Say, ‘It’s the same campaign that’s been done in other places — let’s look at the results,’” Sheinkopf said.
If Clinton stays alive through March, there’s little space for dramatic change before a showdown in Pennsylvania on April 22. And while that’s a state where Clinton’s strong, only unexpectedly wide margins in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania could restore her lead in pledged delegates.
Her best bet, then, is to make the case to the superdelegates.
“With the superdelegates and the insiders after March 4, electability may be the only case being made on both sides,” Maslin said.
And it’s unclear when the bulk of uncommitted superdelegates will throw their weight behind the front-runner — and whether they will judge that front-runner by his or her lead among pledged delegates or total delegates or by some other count. Certainly, the Clinton campaign will continue to make the case that many of her supporters in Florida have been excluded from the process by a technicality.
Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who supports Clinton, said he expected the remaining, uncommitted superdelegates to coalesce behind whoever is the front-runner by a count of total delegate support later this spring.
“She’s got to have more of the total delegates,” he said. “Pennsylvania is when the window closes.”
Clinton’s attacks on Obama, however, may hurt her on that front.
“Going negative isn’t likely to appeal to superdelegates,” said another veteran of Democratic presidential politics.
If — and it remains a big if — Clinton can win Texas and Ohio, few expect a swift capitulation from her, even if her margins are narrower than she hopes.
In politics, there’s little harm in playing for time.
“There are a few ways that the Clinton campaign can come back — and while it won’t be easy, it’s not beyond them,” Ken Baer, an unaligned consultant and editor of the journal Democracy, wrote in an e-mail.
“And there are a few ways that are totally beyond their control: 1) Obama has a massive gaffe, 2) there is a terrorist attack or other major foreign policy crisis that gets people yearning for a steady hand or 3) there is a revelation of some sort of Obama scandal that gets Democratic voters to take a pause.”
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