For Clinton, A Lively Dead Heat

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.

"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.

The Clinton campaign struck first with a conference call for reporters with strategists Mark Penn and Howard Wolfson. "There are going to be lots of different ways you can look at this and decide who a winner is and who a loser is," Wolfson proposed.

Not surprisingly, Wolfson had some suggestions. "If Senator Obama doesn't win Massachusetts, I think that would have to be a significant disappointment," he spun.

Obama, for his part, tried to set expectations in his favor. Casting his ballot in Chicago, he said that "Senator Clinton is the favorite -- she was up 20 or 30 points in a lot of the states."

Both campaigns had roughly the same expectations as they awaited the closing of the polls: deadlock. Wolfson forecast that last night's voting would be "inconclusive," a point he repeated several times until Copley News Service's George Condon informed him that "four times you said that tonight will be inconclusive."

The exit polls, coming in after 5 p.m., appeared to confirm that view, showing many razor-thin contests. "At the end of the night it's going to be pretty close to a dead heat," CNN's Jack Cafferty declared on the televisions playing in the ballroom where the Clinton celebration was to occur.

The Clinton campaign at 7:30 e-mailed "Super Tuesday Talking Points." Among them: "To be sure, both campaigns have a long night ahead of them -- but we feel very good about the numbers that we're seeing."

That remained the company line until sometime after 9 p.m., when the Massachusetts and New Jersey victories came on top of Clinton's wins in New York, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. "UPSET OF THE NIGHT -- MASSACHUSETTS FOR CLINTON," blared a new set of talking points. The music pumped into the ballroom and the surrogates swung into action. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey stood on a chair, giving an interview to a local TV station, waving a thumbs up. A flock of members of Congress worked the microphones.

Off in a corner, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York worked a calculator with aides, trying to figure the delegate count. He still wasn't convinced Clinton would score a major win in delegates, but that was only part of the battle. "This gives us momentum," he said. "It confounds expectations."

Out on the ballroom floor, adviser Hattaway was celebrating Clinton's triumph over the low expectations he helped to set. "I held out a kernel of hope that it would be like that," he said.

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