By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 7, 2008
HAMPTON, N.H., Jan. 6 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, slipping further behind her chief rival in the Democratic primary here, has taken direct control over her strategy and message as she scrambles to block the ascent of Sen. Barack Obama.
With just two days to go until the New Hampshire primary, contenders in both parties blanketed the state with campaign events. On the Republican side, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) continued their war of words, with Romney seeking to remind voters about McCain's unpopular stand on immigration legislation.
Despite being outwardly optimistic, Romney advisers are well aware that a loss Tuesday after defeat at the hands of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in Iowa on Thursday would unravel their carefully plotted route to the nomination. A new CNN/WMUR poll, released after a heated Saturday night debate in which Romney was peppered with criticism from his rivals, showed McCain maintaining a narrow lead over Romney.
That poll also showed Obama (Ill.) opening up a significant lead in the state, suggesting a major bounce in support following his win in the Iowa caucuses, where Clinton (N.Y.) finished third.
Frustrated by her campaign's reaction to the defeat, Clinton ordered her advisers Sunday to reorient their message to more aggressively focus on the idea that Obama is all talk and no action.
"This election is about the difference between talk and action, between rhetoric and reality," Clinton said at a crowded rally near the coast Sunday night in what advisers said was a new approach that she scripted herself. "If we're going to be talking about change, then let's talk about change. Let's talk about who's produced change, and let's talk about who's more likely to bring about change."
Obama, drawing overflow crowds at every stop, challenged Clinton's assertion that he is offering "false hope." Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who placed second in Iowa but is trailing in New Hampshire, held an emotional event with the family of a young woman who died after she could not afford a liver transplant.
The Clinton campaign on Sunday held two conference calls to knock Obama over his record, advisers said, and attacked his campaign's use of automated phone calls. Officials sent out an appeal, labeled "urgent," seeking phone bank volunteers at the campaign's Arlington headquarters. Former president Bill Clinton also held a full day of campaign events, and advisers said he played a prominent role in crafting his wife's new approach to the race.
Clinton's campaign pounced on the fact that one of Obama's New Hampshire co-chairs, Jim Demers, is a registered state lobbyist, arguing that it calls into question Obama's pledge to clean up the insider culture in Washington. She also pointed to votes on Iraq war funding, the Patriot Act and energy policy that she said conflicted with her rival's public positions on those issues, attempting to portray him as another waffling politician.
"It's a classic response, when a candidate is in trouble, to go harshly negative," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said.
In an unscheduled conference call with senior aides on Sunday morning, Clinton took what her advisers described as an unprecedented level of control over the direction of the daily message -- issuing orders rather than soliciting advice. According to one participant in the call, Clinton did not explicitly relieve any advisers of responsibilities, but she made it clear that she intends to reorient her campaign toward sharpening her differences with Obama on the trail. Two advisers, separately, used the term "very determined" to describe Clinton's attitude toward winning Tuesday's primary -- a characterization matched by her pace and aggressiveness on the campaign trail Sunday.
"It is important for you to have the facts, and last night we saw some of what the differences are," Clinton said during a rally that drew thousands in Nashua, referring to a Democratic debate the night before.
Of Obama, she said, "if you give a speech saying you're going to vote against the Patriot Act and you don't -- that's not change. If you say that you're going to prevent members of Congress from having lunch with lobbyists sitting down, but they still can have lunch standing up, that's not change."
She continued to use the "that's not change" mantra, with an enthusiastic audience eventually joining in the chant. Clinton's challenges in regaining an advantage in the race with an emboldened Obama go beyond sagging poll numbers, some of her own supporters acknowledge. Campaign officials have sounded the alarm about shortcomings in their organization in South Carolina, the next major contest on the Democratic calendar, causing concern that she will be outmatched in the primary there on Jan. 26.
But her campaign is continuing to hire staffers in key states that will vote in the Feb. 5 primaries, an indication that Clinton is determined to carry the race forward.
Obama drew overflow crowds as he campaigned across the state Sunday, but Clinton's attacks from the debate the night before lingered, adding an intensity to his typically breezy and uplifting stump speech. "We don't need leaders telling us what we cannot do. We need a president who can tell us what we can do," he said to a roaring crowd.
One of the Obama campaign's most pressing concerns is that an increasingly popular McCain, who leads the GOP field here, will siphon away independent votes, allowing Clinton to win. To add heft to his pitch to independents, Obama will be joined on the campaign trail Monday by former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.), a favorite of moderate and unaffiliated voters and among the vanguard in a wave of establishment endorsements that is expected to break should Obama prevail again.
Edwards, meanwhile, struck an emotional closing note, surrounded by the family of Nataline Sarkisyan, who died last month after her insurance company balked at paying for a liver transplant.
Edwards helped organize a protest that persuaded the insurer to offer, just hours before Sarkisyan's death, to pay for the procedure, and he has told her story repeatedly over the past 10 days. Her parents and brother contacted the campaign after hearing Edwards cite their experience as an example of what is wrong with the health insurance system. They flew into Manchester to appear with Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, at a jampacked downtown venue.
Edwards also went out of his way to assure New Hampshire voters Sunday that he will not quit the race if he fails to break through here. In 2004, as he did last week, Edwards finished second in the Iowa caucuses, then slipped further in New Hampshire before winning the South Carolina primary. Once again this year, Edwards is operating at a financial disadvantage. Nonetheless, he vowed: "I am in this race for the long haul. I am in it through the convention and into the White House."
Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report from New Hampshire.