Clinton's Supporters Question Her Strategy

By Anne E. Kornblut, Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 5, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 4 -- After an unexpectedly thorough defeat in Iowa, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton faced a barrage of second-guessing Friday from supporters worried that her campaign strategy could cost her the Democratic nomination.

In a flurry of conference calls throughout the day, described by several participants, anxious Clinton advisers agreed to stick to her original message -- that only the former first lady has the experience to bring about change. And while they decided to increase the pressure on Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) here, campaign officials were debating how hard to hit him on his experience level in the few short days until the New Hampshire primary.

So far, no senior Clinton advisers have been ousted for failing to produce a victory in Iowa, despite their spending many months and millions of dollars there only to see the candidate's status as the Democratic front-runner vanish. But supporters outside the campaign were quick to question Mark Penn, the chief strategist, whose polling data suggested she could win in Iowa; Patti Solis Doyle, the campaign manager, who moved to Iowa to try to eke out a win; and an inner circle of operatives whose "inevitability" strategy failed to blunt the message of "change" that swept Obama into first place Thursday night.

As Clinton flew from Iowa to New Hampshire, her supporters were divided over how she should handle the early defeat. Paul Begala, a campaign strategist for her husband and a Hillary Clinton supporter, said she could take one of two approaches: explain away Iowa by dismissing it as unfamiliar territory, diminishing its odd caucus system and portraying it as Obama's neighboring state; or accept responsibility for the loss, saying, " 'I've been knocked on my rear end. It's not fun, but the view from the canvas can be instructional.' "

"America loves an underdog," Begala said. "Candidates can show their character in defeat."

But the Clinton campaign did not appear poised to take the advice. The senator from New York and the former president started the day taking jabs at Iowa, justifying Clinton's third-place finish. And for those who counseled that she could not campaign both as an agent of change and the most experienced candidate in the race, Clinton had a clear answer: Her two-sided message would not be altered much.

Tad Devine, the chief political strategist for Al Gore's 2000 campaign, said Clinton is facing the same dilemma that vice presidents such as Gore and George H.W. Bush faced as they sought to emerge from the shadow of a president while benefiting from a record of incumbency. If she wants to seize the mantle of change from Obama, she will have to quickly establish herself as a candidate apart from her husband's administration. The image Thursday night of Clinton surrounded by her husband's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and her husband's favorite general, Wesley K. Clark, was all wrong, Devine said.

"Being the change candidate in a change election is the most formidable position to be in," Devine said. "They're trying to find a way to maneuver into that position, but sometimes positioning just isn't available."

Clinton did not appear ready to embrace her defeat, instead trying aggressively to move past it. Her advisers, echoing her stepped-up edge on the campaign trail, said they intend to turn new attention to Obama's record, questioning whether he really has achieved change. One Clinton adviser described it as a "where's the beef?" strategy similar to the one that Walter Mondale, borrowing from a Wendy's ad, deployed against Gary Hart in their 1984 Democratic nomination fight.

Outsiders continued to question whether Clinton should have run on a message of inevitability, and some said they had privately urged the campaign to take a more humble approach. "It's the inevitability thing that's hurt her so much. There's an arrogance that comes from the message that 'I'm inevitable,' " said a Clinton supporter and White House veteran, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Just as the Clinton team sought to reassure staff members Thursday night, top campaign advisers -- including former president Bill Clinton -- convened a conference call Friday morning to soothe members of Congress who have endorsed her campaign.

The message to the lawmakers was that the campaign will tweak the message to focus on equal parts experience and how to effect change. "It requires experience to bring change," Howard Wolfson, Clinton's top communications adviser, told the lawmakers, according to one participant in the call.

But, according to two people who listened to the former president and the aides, the Clinton team is also trying to dramatically play down the importance of the caucuses' result, contending it was a home-turf win for Obama since he hails from a neighboring state.

The mood among the lawmakers was fairly calm, even upbeat, according to participants. One lawmaker, Rep. Diane Watson of Los Angeles, said her constituents paid little to attention to Iowa. "All anybody out here is talking about is Britney Spears," Watson said, according to a participant.

This participant attended a similar meeting with supporters of Howard Dean after his 2004 collapse in Iowa's Democratic caucuses; Washington backers gathered in the home of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) on Capitol Hill and angrily denounced top Dean advisers. That was a sharp contrast with Friday's call.

"There's desperation, but there's no panic. The Dean call was absolute panic," the participant recalled, requesting anonymity to speak freely about both campaigns' internal deliberations.

At the same time, some of Clinton's congressional supporters pushed her to go on the offensive against Obama.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of 77 members of Congress to endorse Clinton, urged her to shift toward a campaign that draws a "sharp contrast" between herself and Obama. "Obama got to be more negative toward her than she was of him. . . . I don't think you can allow those dynamics to continue at all," Menendez said in an interview. He recommended that Clinton criticize Obama as he has her: "Substantively."

Menendez said the biggest mistake Clinton made in Iowa was not emphasizing her ability to bring about change because of her experience in Washington. "For the longest period of time in Iowa, all she talked about was strength and experience," he said. Put up against Obama, he said, "I don't think that's a juxtaposition that benefits Hillary very well."

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