In Iowa, a Scrambling Lesson for Clinton

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 12 -- When senior advisers to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton awakened to the fact that they faced a serious problem in Iowa, they knew they needed a summit. For the divided staff, the question was where.

It made sense to fly to Iowa, where support for Clinton (N.Y.) was flagging and her aides were scrambling to make up ground. But a key member of her inner circle, Harold Ickes, warned that a crowd of Arlington-based operatives descending on the Plains en masse might set off alarm bells, triggering "campaign in panic mode" stories, according to two people with inside knowledge of the Clinton operation.

In a symbolic twist, they met halfway -- in Chicago, the back yard of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). The irony was not lost on increasingly worried members of the Clinton team, and it was in many ways emblematic of the challenges in turning around a lumbering national organization as events unfolded to the benefit of their less experienced, and nimbler, rival.

On Thursday, Clinton heads into the final Democratic debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses with her earlier aura of inevitability gone. She is essentially tied with Obama and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) in Iowa, and her edge in New Hampshire is eroding as well.

If advisers were worried about appearing panicked in early October, some are less able to hide it now. Bill Shaheen, the Clinton co-chairman in New Hampshire, raised questions on Wednesday about Obama's admission that he had tried drugs, a risky tactic that telegraphed the nervousness within the Clinton campaign.

"The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight . . . and one of the things they're certainly going to jump on is his drug use," said Shaheen, the husband of former governor Jeanne Shaheen, adding that Obama's candor on the subject would "open the door" to further questions.

"It'll be 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' " Shaheen said. "There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."

Shaheen later sought to backtrack, saying, "I deeply regret the comments I made today and they were not authorized by the campaign in any way." But the attempt to raise questions about Obama's electability met with a sharp reaction from his camp.

"Hillary Clinton said attacking other Democrats is the 'fun part' of this campaign, and now she's moved from Barack Obama's kindergarten years to his teenage years in an increasingly desperate effort to slow her slide in the polls," wrote campaign manager David Plouffe. "Senator Clinton's campaign is recycling old news that Barack Obama has been candid about in a book he wrote years ago, and he's talked about the lessons he's learned from these mistakes with young people all across the country. He plans on winning this campaign by focusing on the issues that actually matter to the American people."

Some prominent Clinton supporters said that, while they expected the race to tighten, they are now being forced to scramble. "The level of worry is, they feel like they're in a damned close race," said James Carville, who was a strategist for Bill Clinton and maintains close ties to Hillary Clinton's campaign.

"I don't really think there's going to be any kind of, quote, shake-up or anything like that," Carville said. "But will there be some moving around? Sure."

With three weeks before the caucuses, Clinton's advisers are stepping up their criticism of Obama and are planning a final push that they said will draw distinctions between her level of experience and electability and his. Clinton brought in her mother and daughter to campaign with her here last weekend, and her husband made a swing through key college campuses this week. Her national campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, has more or less moved to Iowa as part of a wave of senior staff members relocating to the state.

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