Acknowledging Change in the Air

Hillary Clinton addresses her supporters after the Iowa caucus results filter in. Video by AP
By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 4, 2008

For Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Iowa was always a risk. Now, after a decisive loss in the first contest of 2008, she and her team must decide how to retool a campaign built on experience to appeal to an electorate looking for change.

"She is going to have to fight for the nomination," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who supports Clinton. He added that the practical effects of Clinton's loss are that her rivals "are going to get some scrutiny" and that expectations for her campaign will now be "in a reasonable place."

After delivering a closing argument to Iowa voters focusing on her 35 years of public service, Clinton found caucus voters looking for a fundamentally different message. By more than 2 to 1, caucusgoers polled as they entered their precincts said change, not experience, was the most important quality in determining their vote.

Electability, another argument put forward by Clinton's campaign, lagged far behind in terms of importance.

Clinton appeared last night to embrace a message of change even as she held fast to her contention that only she is ready for the presidency.

"We're sending a clear message that we are going to have change, and that change will be a Democratic president in the White House in 2009," she told supporters as she conceded to Barack Obama. But she added: "What is most important now is . . . how will we win in November 2008 by nominating a candidate that will be able to go the distance? And who will be the best president on Day One? I am ready for that contest."

Both Clinton and her husband attempted to console downcast staff members in Des Moines last night. Later, campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle held a conference call with the entire staff to urge them on in the fight ahead, praising the effort in Iowa and describing the "unprecedented" result, according to someone who was on the call. Doyle said the team was "pumped," and she said polls show Clinton ahead by 10 points in New Hampshire.

Clinton launched her White House run as the presumed nominee, banking on her experience and on lingering affection for her husband's presidency to amass a war chest that reached $100 million by year's end and a political organization that set her apart from her competitors. She wasn't just the only candidate ready to walk into the White House and be president from the first minute on the job; she would lead a Clinton restoration -- a view held by many who served in Bill Clinton's administration.

"There is reason to believe those who were a part of the Clinton administration during the '90s got experience that is very relevant to the world we will confront in 2009," said P.J. Crowley, a National Security Council staff member in the Clinton White House who is now advising Hillary Clinton on homeland security. "Not only do we have to have a president prepared on Day One, he or she has to have a substantial staff on Day One, or very close to Day One."

Against that vision was Obama's contention that the electorate at large -- and Democrats in particular -- want to embrace something different rather than go back. "Hillary Clinton made a fundamental mistake; she believed among Democrats this would be an election where experience would be the decisive factor," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama supporter. "But Democrats are yearning for a change. They are yearning for boldness, and the rhetoric of experience blends you into the status quo."

Last January, days before her campaign officially began, top strategist Mark Penn huddled with a veteran of the family's fundraising efforts for an hour-long PowerPoint pitch. The presentation emphasized Clinton's experience and the inevitability of her nomination, but the fundraiser told Penn that he was missing something: the desire among the public for a change in the political tone and discourse.

"That's what people say every election. It's not any more evident today than it is in other elections," countered Penn, a veteran Democratic pollster.

The fundraiser, who related the conversation on the condition of anonymity, signed up with Obama.

The Clinton campaign had long maintained that Iowa was her toughest state and, in a leaked memo last spring, a senior campaign aide went as far as to suggest that she skip it. Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director, echoed that sentiment last night. He said that Clinton started out behind in Iowa and that "while we made progress, we obviously didn't make enough."

Wolfson sought to put Iowa in a broader national perspective, insisting that it was an isolated case rather than a signal of things to come in the nomination fight. "This is where the process begins; this is not where the process concludes," Wolfson said. "The numbers nationally and in New Hampshire are different."

But Democratic strategists said the compressed primary schedule, and the mood of the voters, could mean rough sledding. "It is tough to reload in five days in the face of Obama's big win," said Carter Eskew, a longtime Democratic strategist who is unaffiliated in this campaign.

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut and washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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