Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Clinton backers fault campaign"

Baltimore Sun:
Supporters outline errors as focus turns to big states--It may be hard to recall the shield of inevitability that once surrounded Hillary Clinton, but a December 2007 cover story in a liberal magazine is a reminder.
"Has Hillary Locked It Up?" asked The American Prospect, which unabashedly promotes its "Liberal Intelligence." The article lauded the "strategic and tactical brilliance of her campaign" and "her political adeptness," concluding that Clinton had pulled so far ahead that the race might be over once the first votes were cast.

Now, after falling behind Barack Obama, her campaign is being vilified by some of her supporters. They say she made the strategic mistake of believing that she was inevitable, allowing herself to be positioned, in effect, as an incumbent in an election about change.

Her advisers apparently assumed that the nomination would be decided by the Super Tuesday primaries Feb. 5, when more than half the states would have voted. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Clinton supporter, was quoted as saying last week that "it sure didn't look like they had a game plan after Super Tuesday."

Among recent problems: a shortage of campaign cash and, some supporters say, a surplus of loose talk by her husband, the former president.

Most of the Clinton supporters interviewed for this article, some of whom spoke on condition that they not be identified, said they think she can win the nomination. Some also said, as one put it, that "sometimes the moment is not your moment, or voters are looking for new and different and you're not new and different."

Facing a primary opponent that even John McCain's campaign manager described admiringly the other day as "a phenomenon," Clinton wins praise for her public performance, even as her campaign decisions are getting second-guessed.

"She made virtually no mistakes under an intense level of scrutiny. I don't think you can fault her as a candidate at all," said Clinton backer Steve Elmendorf, deputy manager of John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.

Aides point to new polling that showed her leading in Ohio and Texas, two must-win states. Victories there could reinforce the claim that Clinton is best suited to carry the big states that Democrats need in November.

Clinton trails Obama by fewer than 60 delegates out of a total of nearly 2,500, according to an Associated Press tally. Her campaign says the race could go all the way to the convention.

But there is an undercurrent of pessimism among some supporters about her chances of reclaiming the lead, now that Obama has reeled off eight victories in a row.

"I don't necessarily think it's over," said a Democrat who has campaigned with Clinton. "Only a few delegates separate them, and the coronation of Emperor Obama is premature." But this Democrat, and others, said Obama will be unstoppable if the race doesn't change course soon.

Signaling the start of a new, rougher phase, Clinton aired her first negative ads last week.

Attacking over the same issue that helped her husband turn the 1992 primaries around, she warns that Obama might raise the retirement age for Social Security, the most sacred government program to Democrats. Obama wants a panel to propose an overhaul plan and says that "everything," except private accounts, would be on the table, but he hasn't called for raising the retirement age.

She's also attacking him for refusing to debate before Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin. Obama has agreed to debates in Texas and in Ohio over the next two weeks.

In what has become a recent pattern, Obama beat her to the punch in Wisconsin. He was the first to hit the airwaves and drew 17,000 people to a campus rally in Madison on Tuesday. Clinton made her first campaign stop yesterday in the state, which, Democrats said, she should have a good chance of winning.

Since Super Tuesday, she's been outmaneuvered and outspent by her more nimble and better-financed rival. Last month, Clinton had to lend her cash-short campaign $5 million, though aides say the money is rolling in again.

Flawed premise?
The "Clinton model is very old-fashioned and inefficient. It's based on what they did in the '90s," said Bill Carrick, an unaligned Democratic strategist. Obama has "made sure they could maximize the amount of money they can raise on the Net. That's just a monster of an advantage."

Some Democrats say Clinton is running on a flawed premise: that superior experience is what party voters are looking for.

"There's this big hunger for change and something different, and so she was running into a headwind that was incredibly strong," said Carrick. "She's certainly very smart, and she's got encyclopedic knowledge of policy, and her positions are well thought out. But people are more interested in being inspired and having somebody speak to their hopes and dreams and aspirations, as opposed to wanting the most substantive, policy-oriented candidate."

Belatedly, Clinton and her husband began describing her as an "agent of change." That was "reactive, not proactive," said a leading supporter in Iowa, where the theme emerged in late December.

The last national election, in 2006, when Democrats regained control of the House, "told us that change is in the air. I'm wondering why we didn't pick up on that and carry that as our own torch," said this Clinton backer.

Her third-place finish in Iowa last month was a turning point in the contest. But Clinton's aura of inevitability was first punctured last fall, at an Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia.

She stumbled over a question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, and her rivals quickly accused her of being evasive. and calculating. Bill Clinton helped keep the flap alive, comparing attacks on his wife's answer to the Republican campaign to distort Kerry's military record in 2004.

S.C. blunder
The former president's comments were criticized publicly by Obama as stunning, and privately by his wife's campaign as unhelpful. In hindsight, they were a precursor to what many regard as her biggest blunder: South Carolina.

In the days leading up to the first Southern primary, also the first to include large numbers of African-American voters, the former president went on the attack against Obama in a way that many blacks saw as racially tinged. The attacks were widely interpreted as an attempt by the Clintons to define Obama, who had de-emphasized race in his campaign, as a black candidate, presumably with an eye toward preventing Obama from building support among white voters.

Clinton said his comments were taken out of context, but the damage to his wife's campaign was substantial. Black voters turned out in record numbers and helped Obama to a lopsided victory. African-Americans in other states followed suit. Whites either forgot, or ignored, the episode.

"When she won New Hampshire, they thought they were back on a roll again, so they decided to send him into South Carolina and try to make a difference there," said a Clinton supporter with high-level experience in national campaigns over the past three decades. "They should have just let Barack win by 12 points, because it would have been nothing, and they would have moved on. Instead, they made 12 points into 28. The strategy all along has been mistake after mistake after mistake."

Another supporter said voters had begun to get comfortable with the idea of her as president but "the more [Bill] came into the picture, the more it detracted from that. It also brought up this image in people's minds of a co-presidency, which voters weren't comfortable with."

A Clinton superdelegate who served in Bill Clinton's administration said the former president "has screwed this thing up for her big-time. They need to send him out of the country for a long, long time. I am angry at Bill Clinton and I think there are other Hillary people who are angry at Bill, who felt that she was running a very good, solid campaign - she wasn't the exciting one, but she was the solid one - and then he came in and made it nasty, and single-handedly pushed away black voters."

'She's in a dogfight'
This Democrat, in an assessment echoed by other campaign veterans, also described Clinton's recent failures in caucus states as astonishing: "That's where Walter Mondale racked it up against Gary Hart. That's where experience is supposed to count, and Obama's been winning all those caucus states."

The Clinton campaign has said there wasn't enough money at the time to mount aggressive efforts in caucus contests.

Steve Jarding, a strategist with ties to both camps, says Clinton's team has done a reasonably good job, an assessment he admits puts him in the minority.

"Come on, Hillary Clinton is going to run as the candidate of change?" he said. "She's run the campaign she had to run."

He added, "Just a few weeks ago, it was one of the most brilliant campaigns you've seen, and now everybody says they've done all these things wrong. You can't say it was great and now it's horrible because she's in a dogfight. She can still win this thing."

No comments: