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For Clinton, A Lively Dead Heat

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The Washington Post's Dana Milbank teams with washingtonpost.com's Akira Hakuta to provide a behind-the-scenes look at government proceedings in Washington.

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

NEW YORK A presidential campaign is a series of turning points, and for Hillary Rodham Clinton, a crucial one came at 9:46 p.m. here last night in a ballroom seven stories above Midtown Manhattan.

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"Holy [expletive]!" shouted Doug Hattaway, a Clinton aide, as the big screen in the room flashed the news on CNN that the candidate had won the Massachusetts primary. "Look at that!" The returns showed a 59 percent to 38 percent Clinton lead. The crowd roared, and the speakers blasted Big Head Todd and the Monsters' "Blue Sky" ("Yes, you can change the world").

Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts had lent the family name to Barack Obama, and John Kerry had campaigned vigorously for Clinton's opponent. Polls showed that Clinton's lead in the state had vanished -- emblematic of a national Democratic primary race in which Obama had rapidly closed the gap with Clinton and threatened to overtake her. Instead, "she beat John Kerry and Ted Kennedy in their back yard," exulted Rep. Anthony Wiener (N.Y.) as he worked the rows of cameras and microphones.

It was as good a reason to celebrate as any. The arcane rules of the Democratic Party, in which the candidates win delegates based on their proportion of the vote, mean that the exact results of the 22 state contests wouldn't be known immediately and would probably reflect a close contest between Clinton and Obama. But perhaps as important as the delegate count are the intangibles: bragging rights and momentum. And after both campaigns forecast a draw, Clinton was well positioned to claim that she beat expectations.

"Tonight we are hearing the voices of people across America," she declared on the stage here just before 11 p.m. She bopped her head and clapped with the music. A whir was heard overhead and red, white and blue confetti rained on the crowd.

On paper, it wasn't as tremendous a victory as the confetti and dancing implied. Obama racked up victories in Georgia, Illinois, Alabama, Delaware, North Dakota, Connecticut, Colorado, Minnesota, Idaho, Kansas, Alaska, Utah and Missouri. And, even in many states where he lost, he stayed close enough to keep close to parity in the race for delegates. But in the race to spin the Super Tuesday results, Clinton's campaign had the edge.

With mechanized precision, celebrity surrogates fanned out in the ballroom to deliver a victory message. "Who do you want? I've got Governor Spitzer; I've got Rob Reiner," offered a young Clinton aide, as if vending hot dogs.

We'll take one of each.

"It's a big, big night for Hillary," announced director cum pundit Reiner. "The people of America are recognizing that experience matters."

"She's going to be demonstrating a national base that's very hard to overcome," offered New York governor-pundit Eliot Spitzer. "The momentum is clearly in Senator Clinton's favor."

By comparison, Obama's spin was mild. An e-mail from campaign spokesman Bill Burton noted that Obama's Georgia win was his "strongest showing among female voters of any contest so far." A later e-mail from another Obama official sent out a list of polls showing that Clinton had been expected to win most of the Super Tuesday states all along.

In fact, the Obama and Clinton campaigns agreed earlier in the day that they were looking at what Obama called a "split decision." With the possibility of a "knockout punch" essentially absent, Super Tuesday turned into Spin Tuesday, as both campaigns sought to define victory down.


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