Friday, March 28, 2008

"Still in It To Win It" (with audio)

Hillary Clinton is often compared with the conniving Lady Macbeth (by her enemies) or with the fierce and nurturing Roman goddess Juno (by her supporters). But these days she feels most like Cassandra, desperate to make the case for why she is staying in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Clinton is well aware of the long odds she faces in the battle against Barack Obama for delegates. She knows that as the Democratic National Convention gets closer, the increasingly bitter back and forth between the two campaigns hurts Obama's chances of winning a general election and reinforces the image of the Clintons as a power-hungry couple who will do anything to win, even if they damage the Democratic Party.

But for the Clintons, quitting isn't an option. "My family is not big on quitting," Bill Clinton said in West Virginia on March 26. When Clinton closes her eyes, she sees John McCain triumphing in November against Obama in a contest she believes she would win. Like all competitive candidates, Clinton is certain she would be a better leader than her rivals, and she feels an obligation to her supporters to fight on. "The people who are supporting me sure don't want to see it over," she told TIME while campaigning in Pennsylvania on March 25. "They tell me all the time that they want me to keep going. They want me to keep fighting."

That Clinton partisans want her to remain in the race is undoubtedly true. It is also largely irrelevant. Which is why Clinton is coming under pressure to explain her decision to continue through the summer, despite the nearly insurmountable lead Obama holds among elected delegates. "In order for your staying in to be regarded as anything more than the behavior of a sore loser," says a prominent unaligned Democrat, "you have to make the argument for how you'd be a winner. No one can articulate that argument."

Indeed, the scenario for a Clinton comeback remains remote. Even if she decisively wins Pennsylvania's April 22 primary and rides that momentum to upset Obama in both Indiana and North Carolina on May 6, she would probably still trail him in the delegate count. The news that neither Michigan nor Florida will hold do-over contests was another blow to the Clinton effort.

But not only does Clinton intend to stay in, she and her advisers are crafting a strategy that they think can swing the nomination her way. It essentially comes down to convincing superdelegates that they can't afford to take a chance on Obama, that she is the only candidate who can win the White House against McCain. It's a breathtaking gambit. And it could work. But it has some Democrats asking, At what cost?

The question of who emerges from the primary season as the party nominee is not usually a subjective one. There is a process, however convoluted, through which candidates amass delegates; after the last state has voted and the numbers have been tallied, the one with the most delegates wins. This year is different. The two massively popular candidates have both earned large numbers of delegates, resulting in a situation in which neither can realistically obtain the required number of elected delegates that will put the candidate over the top.

Given this unusual turn of events, the Clinton campaign has seized the chance to promote an argument ground not in numbers but in sentiment: it is asking superdelegates to make a subjective decision about which candidate is best positioned to win the White House in November. The first exhibit of its case is demographic. "I've obviously done very well with women, who are a majority of the electorate," Clinton explained to TIME. "I've done very well with Hispanics. I've done well with older voters. We have to anchor our electoral map in the states that [Democrats] must win, and I think I'm in a good position to do that."

There's a flip side to this as well--the argument that Obama is dangerously weak among key Democratic and swing constituencies. The Clinton campaign has been raising questions about Obama's ability to win white blue-collar voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Hispanics in places like New Mexico and Colorado--all swing states that will most likely decide the election.

Then there's her old standby case based on experience. Clinton believes Obama's support is largely a mirage--a bunch of true believers whose passion might help him cinch the nomination, but that may prove an insufficient bedrock for winning a general election when the spell might be broken by tough questions about national-security credentials, economic-policy plans and rich experience. She can't stop from shaking her head in disbelief when longtime friends who are elected officials inform her that they are going to endorse Obama and were chiefly convinced by their children's enthusiasm for his candidacy.

But this argument has taken a hit in recent weeks as Clinton has found herself on the defensive about her experience as First Lady. On a variety of domestic and international issues, information has emerged that calls into question the extent of Clinton's policy involvement in the 1990s. And she was recently embarrassed by revelations that a 1996 trip to Bosnia was far less dangerous and dramatic than in her campaign-stump retelling.

That leaves the strategy Clinton is turning to more frequently--trying to define Obama on her terms. According to those close to her, she is hoping that as spring becomes summer, the potential for finding another skeleton or two in Obama's closet will prove him ultimately unelectable in the fall. In some cases, her campaign is even trumpeting attacks on Obama's circle from unlikely corners, like the American Spectator--a right-wing magazine that spent much of the 1990s targeting Bill Clinton. (Obama's campaign has also stepped up its personal attacks on Hillary Clinton, escalating the conflict.)

It's these kinds of tactics that most worry Democrats, even those who haven't taken sides. "The problem with staying in," says one, "and with the idea that something mysteriously is gonna appear to disqualify Obama is that the only way it's going to mysteriously appear is if the Clintons are behind it. So the thing that convinces people Barack Obama can't win has to come from the hand of either Bill or Hillary Clinton."

That prospect doesn't appear to daunt the Senator from New York. Said a confidant who has talked to her regularly throughout the campaign: "This woman never quits. Neither she nor her husband." So don't expect this race to end anytime soon.

TIME Audio Listen to Mark Halperin's interview with Hillary Clinton at

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