By Peter Baker and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 10, 2008
In a campaign run by conference calls, this one stood out. It was Dec. 2, just a month before the Iowa caucuses, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was furious. She did not yell, but her voice, serious and deep, bristled with irritation over how things were going for her in Iowa.
Iowans were not getting her message, she complained, and her staff did not seem to grasp the depth of the problem. "Our communications just isn't measuring up to our field and fundraising," Clinton said, according to participants. She snapped at aides trying to reassure her. When campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle promised a new Iowa plan by day's end, Clinton groused that she had been asking for one for weeks. Solis Doyle flew to Des Moines the next day and checked in to the Embassy Suites for the duration.
The crisis in the Clinton camp would deepen in the coming weeks as the New York senator and national front-runner headed to a devastating defeat in Iowa, only to rebound with a surprising comeback victory Tuesday in New Hampshire. The dramatic swings of fortune were classic Clinton, the latest manifestation of a boom-and-bust cycle that has helped define Hillary and Bill Clinton for the past 16 years. From defeat comes victory, from adversity comes triumph -- it was a familiar narrative filled with moments of anger, grievance and vindication.
The path to the presidency is rarely smooth, but the turmoil of the past few weeks disrupted what had appeared to be an extraordinarily methodical march to the Democratic nomination. A campaign built on a strategy of establishing that a woman was experienced enough to be president succeeded so much that suddenly Clinton became the symbol of status quo running against the agent of change, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). Lulled into false confidence by a gusher of money and sky-high poll numbers, the Clinton team recognized the threat late and was forced to retool literally on the fly as it jetted from Iowa to New Hampshire last Thursday night.
Along the way came the sorts of critical strategic choices and internal debates that often characterize high-level campaigns, particularly in Clinton world, according to an array of campaign insiders interviewed in recent weeks.
Bill Clinton and Mark Penn, the campaign's chief strategist, repeatedly agitated for an early assault on Obama, only to run into resistance from other advisers and campaign officials in Iowa and New Hampshire who thought it would backfire, according to Clinton advisers.
Howard Wolfson, the communications director, pressed to find ways to humanize the candidate, while Penn thought that was not the highest priority and focused instead on proving how tough she is, several advisers said. At one point, they said, Penn and media consultant Mandy Grunwald had engaged in so many "raging debates," as one put it, that they had stopped speaking.
By the last few days in New Hampshire, Clinton was no longer soliciting advice from her aides so much as telling them what to do. She sharpened her attack on Obama, portrayed him as a phony and fired back passionately in a debate Saturday night. She began mapping out a staff shake-up on the assumption that she would lose New Hampshire. She was no longer the inevitable candidate.
"Right after Iowa there was a lot of frustration," said Robert Zimmerman, a top Clinton fundraiser who tried to reassure her donors. "But then she seemed to turn a corner. She was going after primary voters, not fighting the general election. Since Saturday, they've been calling me, saying, 'It's about time. Why didn't this happen earlier?' "
But in the end, it may have been the exhaustion and stress of the moment that helped save her. Having been told so many times to reveal a little more of her personal side, she let down her guard on election eve in response to a question about how she was doing, choking up with emotion as she talked about how important the election is to the country.
Within 24 hours, New Hampshire voters -- especially women -- were streaming to the polls to vote for her, shocking everyone, including the candidate. Clinton had two prepared speeches, one for a "big defeat" and one for a "close defeat," an aide said. No victory speech had been written. Several top strategists agreed among themselves to resign if she lost.
"Everybody has a near-death experience," another adviser said. Now they hope that is all it was.
* * *
The campaign buses rolled past the Main Street Cafe and Bob's Barber Shop before pulling into the Jackson County Fairgrounds in Maquoketa, Iowa. Onto the stage bounded a woman who in many ways would be unrecognizable to those who had known her only as first lady.
The Hillary Clinton of the 1990s gave smart but turgid speeches, a little distant or condescending, and rarely engaged an audience in an emotional way. While her husband would enthusiastically shake every hand after an event, she sometimes went to wait in the car.
The Hillary Clinton of Maquoketa, Iowa, however, pumped up her crowd with rousing rhetoric and eagerly hit the rope line, posing for pictures, signing autographs and telling stories about singing to daughter Chelsea when she was young or banning smoking in the White House.
It is sometimes easy to forget the transformation Clinton has undergone in the seven years since Bill Clinton left the Oval Office. Once she railed about the "vast right-wing conspiracy"; now she boasts about working with Republicans in the Senate. The implausibility of a former first lady running for her husband's old job has evaporated. The main goal as Clinton began her campaign a year ago was to make it seem like the most natural thing that she would be the next president.
"I'm in to win," she said in her kickoff speech, her first real slogan of the campaign. But if the quotation on her Web site and in headlines nationwide signaled determination, it said nothing about why she was in beyond her own ambition. It did not say she was in to remake the country or ensure health care or end the war in Iraq. She was in to win.
And for the next nine months, she seemed to be succeeding. She deflected calls by the antiwar left to apologize for her 2002 vote to authorize the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, overcame Obama's initial fundraising edge and easily dispensed with every debate. Heading into fall with a lead of 33 percentage points in national polls, she was being described as "inevitable" even as aides insisted that they did not have an "inevitability strategy."
Her campaign team blended loyalists from both her White House and Senate days. At the top were the Big Five -- Penn, the pollster and strategist who helped orchestrate Bill Clinton's reelection in 1996; Grunwald, the admaker who worked on the original 1992 campaign; Solis Doyle, who has been at Hillary Clinton's side since the beginning; Wolfson, a key adviser since her first Senate campaign; and Neera Tanden, a policy aide in her White House and Senate offices. The five formed a de facto governing council without a clear chain of command, an organizational structure that chafed at several of them.
Others in the inner circle included campaign chairman Terence R. McAuliffe, former White House aides Harold Ickes and Sidney Blumenthal and others. But many veterans of her husband's team were kept at a distance. "There were a lot of us revolving around the perimeter, but I don't know if anyone really penetrated the perimeter," said one former Bill Clinton aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating her. "We got spun like everybody else got spun."
Penn's strategy was to make Clinton look presidential -- "one tough woman," as the campaign put it. He looked to the model of Britain's "Iron Lady," Margaret Thatcher. But behind the scenes, a debate raged over whether to go after Obama.
"We should have taken Obama out earlier," a rueful campaign adviser said last week. "We should have taken him out when we were in a position of strength. We would have taken some flak, but we should have done it."
Bill Clinton argued the same thing, venting in private that the media were giving Obama a free pass and that the young senator was not what he was presenting himself to be. Penn, too, pushed for highlighting contrasts with Obama, as did some outside advisers who sent in e-mails and memos. "I don't understand how she let him walk off with Bill Clinton's message" of hope and change, said one former White House aide. "You can't beat him if you don't hit him, and you can't just nick him, you really have to beat him."
But the rest of her team resisted, especially in Iowa. "They were like, 'She can't go negative, she can't go negative, she can't go negative,' " recalled another person familiar with the debate. Those in Iowa thought it would turn off voters, recalling how they walked away from Howard Dean and Richard A. Gephardt after they savaged each other in 2004. Other strategists worried that Clinton as a woman had a harder time going negative and would look "shrill or bitchy," as one put it.
"Hillary Clinton in the role of attack dog only plays into the most negative of the caricatures people have about her," said Mickey Kantor, the 1992 Clinton campaign chairman and former commerce secretary who advises the senator. "It's not fair, but life's not fair."
* * *
As soon as she finished talking, her staff knew it was a problem, though they could not imagine just how much of one. Clinton's confusing and contradictory answer during an Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia to a question about granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants touched off the beginning of what Kantor calls "the trough period" of the campaign.
Advisers quickly huddled about what to do and decided that the image of all those other candidates pounding on Clinton would backfire on them the same way Republican Rick Lazio was panned for walking close to her during a debate during their Senate race in 2000. To drive that home, they cobbled together a video called "The Politics of Pile On."
But it was not a repeat of Lazio. Instead, the response seemed to fuel the impression that Clinton tries to play it both ways and the campaign's efforts to draw sympathy for her flopped.
During a speech at her alma mater, Wellesley College, Clinton talked of competing in the "all-boys club of presidential politics," and Bill Clinton a few days later compared the criticism of his wife to the Swift-boat attacks on Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004. Suddenly, the "tough woman" looked as if she were playing the gender card.
The streak of bad news continued. An Iowa college student reported that the Clinton campaign gave her a question to ask at a campaign event and Obama received strong reviews for a powerful speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines.
Clinton's confident performance in the next debate, in Las Vegas on Nov. 15, earned her little bounce, while Obama's own confused answer to the same immigration question went largely unnoticed. When The Washington Post published a poll Nov. 20 showing Obama up by four percentage points in Iowa, it sent a shock wave through the campaign and Penn argued furiously to colleagues that the survey was off base.
Hillary and Bill Clinton became increasingly angry about the cascading events. At an off-the-record dinner Dec. 1 with members of the Des Moines Register staff they got an earful from the Iowans about their lack of understanding of the state. The Clintons were told that their field operatives were not armed with talking points about their candidate or, for that matter, about Obama.
That led to the tense conference call the next day with the Big Five and a handful of mid-level aides. Clinton went on the offensive after the call. At a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids a few hours later, she articulated for the first time what she and her husband saw as Obama's greatest weakness -- that he is all talk and no action. Voters in Iowa, she told reporters, must choose "between someone who talks the talk and somebody who's walked the walk."
Aides, meanwhile, scrambled to produce the talking points she demanded. One file they assembled against Obama disputed his assertion that he had not had lifelong ambitions to be president. An opposition researcher found anecdotal evidence that, on the contrary, he had said he wanted to be president when he was in kindergarten. No one questioned whether that detail might come across as overkill. And in the end, it proved the butt of many jokes and shook the campaign into retreating again from a direct confrontation.
* * *
Clinton headquarters in Iowa was located in a nondescript office park in the East Village section of Des Moines, decorated with hand-painted signs such as "Give 'Em Hill." The days began with a meeting known as a standup in the main open area of the office. Teresa Vilmain, the campaign's state director, told the assembled throng to clap twice if they could hear her, and then someone took a turn leading the group in a cheer -- "kind of like summer camp," as one staffer put it.
In one such call-and-response, the leader shouted out a word or phrase and the crowd was supposed to follow with a loud grunt.
Let's Help Her Win (unh)
The Presidency (unh)
A respected operative with deep knowledge of Iowa, Vilmain was brought in months earlier to replace another director and impose order on the operation. She developed an elaborate field apparatus and built a list of 86,000 supporters rated 1 (strong) or 2 (leaning). It was a list that skewed to older women, including more than 1,000 over the age of 90. Vilmain built a model on the assumption that 160,000 voters would caucus, meaning that if they could get the bulk of their 1s and 2s out, Clinton would win.
But Vilmain expressed frustration over not getting more resources and especially time from Bill Clinton. Solis Doyle arrived to set up shop in an office built just before her arrival and worked quickly to make sure Vilmain had everything she needed. The campaign had been using Bill Clinton mainly for fundraising and was already moving to shift him to more campaigning in Iowa.
The former president was seething over what he was seeing. When a campaign fundraiser took him aside after a Philadelphia event, Clinton grew visibly agitated at what he heard. The fundraiser, Mark A. Aronchik, told Clinton that he had spent time in Iowa and that voters there did not relate to the candidate personally.
"He was really bothered by the fact that not only had he heard that from me, but he had heard it from others," Aronchik said. Clinton reassured Aronchik that the campaign planned to send a wave of surrogates.
Clinton then launched into what was becoming a common refrain in private and, eventually, in public, complaining bitterly that the media had skewed coverage of the contest. "How in the world has she been defined as removed and unemotional and detached?" he asked. "That's just wrong."
More small gaffes continued to plague the campaign. Two volunteers were ousted for forwarding e-mails suggesting falsely that Obama is a Muslim, and Clinton's New Hampshire co-chairman, Billy Shaheen, was forced to resign after telling The Post that Republicans would jump on Obama's admitted drug use as a youth. By the end of December, Clinton was still trailing Obama in Iowa.
The campaign decided that the Des Moines Register endorsement would make or break her in Iowa, and Hillary and Bill Clinton peppered the newspaper's editorial board with lobbying calls. If she did not get the endorsement, a top adviser said, the campaign was prepared to start moving resources to New Hampshire.
Around 6 or 7 p.m. on Dec. 15, someone started screaming in Clinton's Des Moines headquarters and pointing to a Web site. The Register had endorsed her. "That was a game-changer," a campaign aide said.
But not enough of one. Clinton aides woke up last Thursday morning convinced they were peaking while Obama had flat-lined. The truth did not become clear until about 7:20 p.m., when the turnout numbers started coming in.
In a "boiler room" set up on the third floor of the Hotel Fort Des Moines, advisers cringed when they heard turnout was 180,000, not 160,000. That meant that the young people Obama had vowed to get to the polls had in fact gone. Then someone yelled out that it would be 220,000 and they knew it was over. The final turnout would be 240,000 -- about 50 percent more than the Clinton model.
After the concession speech, Clinton, stung and exhausted, gathered her staff in a suite. She pushed her way into a jammed room steaming with all the bodies and pent-up frustration, climbed onto a chair, steadied herself by holding McAuliffe's shoulder and vowed to go on. Then after everyone cleared out, she and senior advisers sat down to figure out how.
* * *
Like refugees from a war zone, the Clinton team flew out of Iowa in the middle of the night, taking the wounded campaign to New Hampshire, where they had barely five days to turn things around. Within hours, they were working the phones to do damage control. The team had arranged to staff 175 call centers to target small donors with personal appeals urging continued support. Six conference calls were set up, led in succession by Clinton, her husband and four top campaign officials.
"She spoke very candidly about her pleasures and displeasures with the way things had gone," said Michael Bronfein, a Baltimore financier who was on the call with the candidate. "She reminded us not to lose perspective. That this was a marathon, not a sprint."
Other Clinton fundraisers began registering their concerns. Suzy Tompkins Buell, a top bundler from the San Francisco Bay area, called finance director Jonathan Mantz to say that "Hillary has been too reserved about her emotions." The caution was hurting her in comparison to Obama. "Hillary has to be very guarded, where he's been very open, from his personal indiscretions or his cocaine or whatever," Buell said she told Mantz.
Clinton decided she had to show her passion and at the same time take the gloves off against Obama. On Friday, campaign officials discussed running a negative television ad about him, but decided time was too short before the primary to do so. Instead, she would take him on during a Saturday debate and on the stump.
During the debate, she flashed anger when Obama and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) teamed up against her. Aides initially blanched, worried that she would look like she had lost control. But they came to the conclusion that she looked determined. They also panicked briefly on Monday when word first came via BlackBerry and telephone that the candidate had broken down during a stop at a diner. In fact, she had not cried, but choked up as she talked about how important the race is for her and the country.
Emotions whipsawed throughout those frenetic days. On Saturday, with the approval of the Big Five, Penn publicly issued a memo mocking the Obama campaign for not capitalizing on its Iowa win, titled "WHERE IS THE BOUNCE?" The bounce showed up in the polls the very next day. Bill Clinton defended Penn during a campaign stop Monday night. "It wasn't his best day," Clinton explained. "He was hurt. He felt badly we didn't do better in Iowa."
So did the former president, and now his rage was on display. "It is wrong that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war" when he said in 2004 he did not know how he would have voted on the Iraq resolution, Clinton told students at Dartmouth College on the eve of the primary. "Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."
No one in the Clinton camp woke up Tuesday thinking she would win New Hampshire. The dining room of the Centennial hotel in Concord, where they were staying, was subdued as Ickes and Grunwald sat down to breakfast and other exhausted aides wandered downstairs for a meeting. Penn and other advisers plotted how they would recover, looking ahead to Super Tuesday on Feb. 5.
Hillary Clinton was busy planning a staff shake-up. No one would be forced out, but other new advisers would be "layered on," including Maggie Williams, her chief of staff when she was first lady; Douglas B. Sosnik, Bill Clinton's White House political director; and Roy Spence, an advertising ace and longtime Clinton friend. The question was whether to announce the moves as votes came in to shift the story line away from the defeat.
And then a funny thing happened. She won. Clinton was as surprised as anyone and went to her campaign party to deliver what originally was to be a concession speech. The message was no longer that she was in it simply to win, but to win for a greater cause. "Let's give America," she said, "the kind of comeback New Hampshire has just given me."
Staff writers Matthew Mosk and Alec MacGillis and washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.