Clinton’s Collateral Damage

The Fighter

An Arkansas state legislator once said of Bill Clinton that he would pat you on the back while he urinated down your leg. The corollary for Clinton’s wife Hillary could be that she will tell the world how honored she is to share a stage with Barack Obama even as she’s gearing up to smash him. When it comes to politics, the Clinton philosophy is simple: It’s war, and wars are for winning. Bill put it this way, back in 1981: “When someone is beating you over the head with a hammer, don’t sit there and take it. Take out a meat cleaver and cut off their hand.”

With her presidential hopes at stake in Texas and Ohio, Hillary Clinton reached for the cleaver. Her campaign made good on its promise to throw “the kitchen sink” at Obama, and that paid off with clear popular-vote victories in both states. What’s more, she said, “I’m just getting warmed up.”

Even for some of her supporters, those are ominous words. Democrats now face a reality they were hoping they might avoid: a knock-down, drag-out struggle between two strong candidates lasting at least seven more weeks and possibly all the way to the convention. For the party that was assumed to have the advantage in November against a G.O.P. that was unpopular and riven by infighting, this turnabout is both depressing and distressing.

While the Democratic channel changed from Happy Days to The Ultimate Fighter, Republicans settled on their standard-bearer. John McCain’s final challenger, Mike Huckabee, bowed out with a smile. The G.O.P. can begin regrouping and mobilizing for the general election this fall while the Democrats pitch headlong into an intramural scrum that could leave their nominee — whoever wins — scarred and limping. Donna Brazile, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, urged party chairman Howard Dean to intervene before matters get out of hand. (Dean remains largely out of the fight, saying in a statement only that “as we head toward November, our nominee must have the united support of a strong Democratic Party.”) “I’m really worried,” Brazile says. “Who opened up the gates of hell?”

Exaggeration? You can be sure that the Democratic race will be rough from here on out. Clinton’s victories in Texas and Ohio — states where her campaign estimates Obama and his allies outspent her by more than 2 to 1 on advertising alone — came only after she ramped up her assault on Obama. Her previous sweetness was getting her nothing but declining poll numbers. Clinton questioned her opponent’s honesty after it was reported that an adviser had assured Canadian government officials that Obama didn’t really mean his anti-free-trade rhetoric. “The old wink-wink,” Clinton said scornfully. Four days before the Tuesday primaries, she went up with a chilling and provocative advertisement juxtaposing images of slumbering children with the urgent ringing of the national-security hotline in the White House. “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep,” the announcer says. “Who do you want answering the phone?”

For months, the Democratic candidates, including Clinton, devoutly observed that any of them would be a better President than another Republican. But in leveling her charge that the first-term Illinois Senator would be unprepared in a national-security crisis, Clinton went so far as to compare him unfavorably with McCain. “I have a lifetime of experience I will bring to the White House. I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience he will bring to the White House,” she told reporters the morning before the contests. “And Senator Obama has a speech he made in 2002” — a reference to Obama’s declaration against the Iraq invasion that she and McCain had voted to authorize. Obama has repeatedly referred to that speech as proof that his judgment is superior, even if his résumé is shorter.

At the same time, the Clinton campaign stepped up its attacks on the media, insisting that Obama has been receiving kid-glove treatment. The theme sank into the broad public consciousness when Saturday Night Live returned from the writers’ strike to make a recurring theme of the fawning press. Perhaps eager to prove that they can be equally tough on Obama, journalists filled that week with stories about Obama’s Canada problem and his ties to an indicted Chicago real estate developer, Tony Rezko.

The numbers tell the story: it worked. And so, Howard Dean or no Howard Dean, there is going to be more of it. Indeed, the Clinton campaign has been trying to go on the attack since Obama’s win in Iowa kicked off their epic struggle. Early attempts by Bill Clinton to scrape off some of Obama’s smooth persona backfired, and later barrages — like the charge that Obama plagiarized parts of his speeches — failed only (a Clinton campaign official maintains) because the hectic calendar of primaries and caucuses allowed no time for them to “seep in.” You could fill an aquifer in the long stretch between now and the April 22 Pennsylvania contest.

And Obama has no intention of taking it without hitting back. “If she starts asserting that somehow I’m not ready and that one of the reasons that the Democrats or superdelegates should not vote for me is because ‘we don’t know enough about him’ or ‘there may be things in his past or his character that make him vulnerable to Republican attack,’ then I think it’s certainly fair to compare our track records to see whether or not I am more vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.”

After years of battling the scandal machine that Hillary Clinton once called the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” she and her inner circle feel well prepared for this sort of fight. Students of the Clintons’ long career have noted that they do better in a scrape. Combat brings them to the balls of their feet; by contrast, they tend to spring leaks on calm seas. Clinton’s successful attacks broke Obama’s 12-win streak that had buoyed him through a month of victories, and her advisers now feel they have put a stick in the spokes of his momentum. “They thought they could kill us,” a Clinton campaign official crowed as the Ohio and Texas results were coming in. “They know time is their enemy; time is our friend.”

That’s bold talk and could be true, though even inhabitants of the Amazonian jungle have probably concluded by now that the only certain thing in this race is uncertainty. If you look at a four-month graph of the campaign, you will see that up to now, time has been very, very good to Obama. He has turned a 20-plus-point deficit in the national polls into a dead heat, spoiled Clinton’s plans to wrap things up by Feb. 5 and ground his way through 43 primaries and caucuses to build a lead in pledged convention delegates that appears virtually impossible to close. As impressive as her wins in Ohio and Texas were, Clinton made up scant ground in the delegate count, where she now trails 1,186 to 1,321, according to CNN.

It is hard to come up with a scenario in which either candidate can amass the 2,025 delegates needed to win without relying upon so-called superdelegates. These are the roughly 800 party leaders and elected officials who are automatically delegates to the party convention this summer in Denver, and they are free to support whichever candidate they wish. In a sense, the Pennsylvania primary will be aimed directly at impressing them. Obama will get another chance to beat Clinton when all the chips are in the pot. For Clinton, it is another chance to demonstrate her appeal among core Democratic constituencies: women, older voters, Hispanics and households earning under $50,000.

Her strategists argue that the general election will be a close-fought contest that may come down to Florida and Ohio, two states where the Clinton coalition has been strong — or, alternatively, to a cluster of smaller states that includes Arkansas, New Mexico and Nevada. In most of those states, they say, Clinton’s supporters will matter more than Obama’s appeal among upscale voters and African Americans. They are, in other words, willing to admit that her hard-fought primary campaign could cost the party African-American votes in November.

Clinton officials note that the political terrain in Pennsylvania is, like Ohio’s, abundant with downscale voters who are feeling an economic pinch. And as in Ohio, she has the support of the Democratic governor and can draw on his ground organization, which can help to fill what has been a weakness in comparison to Obama’s operation. If these factors once again add up to a big-state win, Clinton’s team is sure to argue to the superdelegates that only she has the toughness necessary to survive the fall campaign and that Obama can’t land the knockout punch. For a party still ruing the glass-jawed vulnerability of its 2004 nominee, John Kerry, this argument will likely pack some selling power.

Neither campaign releases its internal tallies of superdelegates, but since Super Tuesday, Obama has been cutting into Clinton’s once formidable lead. The latest estimate by CNN suggests her edge is now only 238 to 199. “When you look at the numbers, this is a fistfight,” says a Clinton strategist. “It is going to be a much more rugged fight, because her lifeline is these uncommitted delegates, and they can be shaky sometimes.” Obama’s team continues to push the case that the supers ought to follow the lead of the pledged delegates for the sake of party unity.

The morning after the four-state primary, Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, who is shepherding superdelegates for her campaign, lost no time in visiting the ones on Capitol Hill who have already voiced support for her. His message: Hold firm. To the estimated 330 supers who have yet to commit, he says, Don’t do anything rash. “What we are saying to the superdelegates is, ‘Hold your fire, keep your powder dry, don’t make a commitment,'” Ickes says. “We’re going to do our level best to show [Obama] is not the strongest candidate in a general election.”

Democrats know well how hard a Clinton will fight when everything is on the line and have learned from experience that they have reason to fear the consequences. In 1993 Bill Clinton’s economic plan passed the House by a single vote, with Republicans waving their hankies at the Democrats whose votes put it over the top. Sure enough, the following year, most of the party’s more vulnerable members were gone — and with them, the Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, which had also fallen victim to the resounding rejection of Hillary’s health-care plan. And while Bill Clinton’s tenacity got him through the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, one of the consequences was Al Gore’s defeat two years later.

This time, say some Obama supporters, the Clintons’ win-at-all-costs mind-set could cost the party the November election. “The Clinton campaign strategy is simply going to be to try to run a scorched-earth campaign,” says Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. “Which would be catastrophic for the party.”

It all comes down to one thing, as Hillary Clinton made clear in her last press conference before the Tuesday primaries: “Winning. Winning. Winning. Winning. That’s my measurement of success,” she said. “Winning.”

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