DO-OR-DIE HILLARY TURNS BULLY AS OBAMA STARTS TO PULL AWAY
By Sarah Baxter
** With her rival ahead in the polls and wooing her bedrock Hispanic and female voters, Clinton is trying to force her way back with a risky strategy that could split her party **
February 17, 2008
There is an air of desperation in Hillary Clinton’s camp. The New York senator has embarked on a do-or-die mission to hector and bully her way to victory, putting her on a potential collision course with Democratic party leaders.
It is a risky strategy that could leave her more isolated and unpopular as voters defect to Barack Obama, the new front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama, 46, is being tarred as a cultish, messianic figure who talks big but cannot deliver.
Clinton, 60, is being driven into her last redoubts as white women, blue collar workers and Hispanics -- her core supporters -- have begun to peel away. In public she is adopting a feistier tone and a more populist message against the Illinois senator in a bid to stem her losses.
“Speeches don’t put food on the table. Speeches don’t fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills that keeps you up at night,” she said at a rally in Ohio, a swing state with a heavy component of “rust belt” working-class voters who are already feeling the effects of looming recession.
Privately, her mood has darkened after losing eight primaries and caucuses in a row. The realization that without a series of huge victories in the remaining contests it is impossible for Clinton to win enough “pledged” delegates to clinch the nomination has sent her staff into shock.
Al Gore, the former vice-president, was revealed yesterday to be waiting in the wings to broker a deal should the “superdele-gates,” comprising 796 party figures, end up with a casting vote.
The New York Times reported that he had held talks with Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the former presidential candidates John Edwards, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd over how to avoid a bruising party battle. Tempers have been running high within the Clinton camp.
Her chief strategist, Mark Penn, got into a slanging match with the media consultant Mandy Grunwald at Clinton’s campaign headquarters. “Your ad doesn’t work,” he fumed.
“Oh it’s always the ad, never the message,” Grunwald shot back. Insiders say the atmosphere is dark, even though the fight is not over yet. Loyalty to Clinton remains strong, but there have been too many chiefs and not enough Indians, they complain.
The friends of Bill or “white boys,” as Penn and Terry McAuliffe, the campaign chairman, are known, have long viewed “Hillaryland” -- the closed circle of female friends -- with suspicion.
Patti Solis Doyle, who coined the term “Hillaryland” and was axed as Clinton’s campaign manager last week, found herself in the midst of rows. “There was a feeling that nobody was in charge,” said one observer. “She would try to play honest broker and go to Hillary with, ‘Mark says this, Mandy says that, Howard [Wolfson, her communications chief] says this’ when what they needed was a general.”
Despite Solis Doyle’s legendary status as a second daughter to Clinton, she did not have the nerve to tell her the campaign was haemorrhaging cash at an alarming rate, a troubling sign of the fear and apprehension that Clinton inspires among staff. Clinton repaid the favor by not telling Solis Doyle she was going to put $5m of her own money into propping up her campaign.
Time that should be spent courting voters is now being devoted to fundraising after staff blew through a mind-boggling $130m and still ended up out-organized by Obama. In Wisconsin, a largely white working-class state that Clinton should be able to win on Tuesday, precious resources are being spent on a blast of negative advertisements challenging Obama’s refusal to debate with Clinton.
The latest polls put Obama ahead by 47% to 43%, but this weekend Clinton was fighting a rearguard action to restore her standing in the hope of pulling off a comeback reminiscent of the first primary in New Hampshire, which revived her fortunes after she finished third in the Iowa caucuses. Bill Clinton is also campaigning with begging bowl in hand for funds.
Daughter Chelsea, 27, has gone from silent campaign accessory to full-throttle surrogate, holding rallies of her own on college campuses. Only now is Clinton’s campaign beginning to invest in states that have yet to vote, after assuming that Obama would at this stage be out of the race.
Clinton’s camp has been circulating stories criticizing the “cult” of Obama in the hope of portraying “Obamania” as a mass delusion. Media Matters, a watchdog organization sympathetic to Clinton, compiled a report headlined, “Media figures call Obama supporters’ behavior ‘creepy’, compare them to Hare Krishna and Charles Manson followers.”
It was forwarded by Sidney Blumenthal, a top Clinton adviser, to select reporters. The campaign entered a nasty phase last week with the determination of Clinton’s team to revive delegates from the “ghost” primaries of Michigan and Florida, by legal action if necessary.
The two states broke party rules by bringing forward their contests to January and were stripped of their delegates by the Democratic National Committee. The candidates did not formally compete in either state but Clinton won both handsomely.
“Two million people voted and their votes are going to count,” said Doug Hattaway, a Clinton spokesman.
They were not ruling out legal action. Even some Clinton supporters are aghast at the prospect that she might try to “steal” the election in this way. Obama leads by 1,301 delegates to 1,235, according to RealClearPolitics. Clinton will need the support of superdelegates to close the gap, unless she wins by margins of 20-30% in the large states of Texas and Ohio on March 4 and Pennsylvania on April 22.
Clinton dashed to Texas last Tuesday on the night she lost the “Potomac” primaries in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. by a landslide to Obama, prompting jokes about her last stand at the Alamo. Her Texas firewall may already be crumbling: one poll on Friday put Obama ahead by 48% to 42%, although she led in two others.
In Ohio, Clinton has the backing of Ted Strickland, the governor and a superdelegate who is often mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running mate. He said in an interview: “I tell you, when I go to the convention I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton come hell or high water.”
The apocalyptic imagery may be appropriate. Many Democrats predict a bloody civil war should Obama be defeated by the white men in suits who have run the party for decades.
The demographics of Ohio should present fertile territory for Clinton. Its population is 84% white and it has a high proportion of blue-collar workers without higher education, earning less than $50,000 a year.
Strickland believes the voters have yet to get to know the warm-hearted, “deeply caring” Clinton: “I told her if people understood what motivates you to seek this office, if they understood what was in your heart, there wouldn’t be any contest.” Clinton has eschewed her softer side at this stage of the campaign to emphasize her credentials as a “fighter.”
Party leaders are watching her performance with apprehension, wondering if she really is willing to tear the Democrats apart in order to capture every last vote. Nancy Pelosi said: “It would be a problem for the party if the verdict would be something different than the public has decided.”
Some prominent African-American superdelegates are already switching sides after fearing that they had misjudged Obama’s strength among their own community. Obama’s ability to outmaneuver Clinton is showing in the battle for superdelegates.
Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania congressman, said he remained on the fence for now -- but was wondering whether he had a “moral obligation” to let voters know his preferred candidate.
Obama began calling Altmire in July, when he was 20 points behind in the polls. In November, Altmire had a long chat with Obama’s wife, Michelle, who outlined their strategy for victory and sent him a handwritten follow-up note afterwards.
At that stage there was no indication that the Pennsylvania primary -- coming so late in the schedule -- or his own vote as a superdelegate would matter, but Obama was already planning for the long game.
“They were really touching all the right bases,” Altmire said.
As yet he has not heard anything from the Clintons. Told of the congressman’s story, a spokesman for Clinton asked which state Altmire was from, expecting it to be an early-voting one.
“Pennsylvania? Oh, that is good,” he replied, looking taken aback. It is an extraordinary verdict on Clinton’s campaign that, this far into the race, the formerly inevitable winner is having to play catchup.