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At the Transmission Factory, a Smooth Shift

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lost five contests over the weekend and ousted her campaign manager, has had trouble getting into gear. So where did she go yesterday? Why, a transmission factory, of course.

"Welcome to the world's best transmission plant," a factory worker said as the candidate toured the General Motors facility in White Marsh, Md.

With good cheer, Clinton braved the ruinous metaphor posed by the plant tour. "That's quite a piece of technology," she said at one point.

Apparently so. Clinton disappeared from reporters' view for a while -- and when she reappeared for a news conference, she had a shiny new outlook and a well-oiled set of talking points.

"You lost five primaries and caucuses over the weekend, you're not talking confidently about the next five, you had to lend your campaign $5 million of your own money, and your campaign manager just stepped down," recited Jake Tapper of ABC News. "What do you say to supporters who say this is not what a winning campaign looks like?"

The retooled Clinton didn't hesitate. "Well, to the contrary, I think it exactly is," she said. "I believe if you look at the states that are upcoming, I am very confident. I am absolutely looking to Ohio and Texas, because we know that those are states where they represent the broad electorate in this country."

It was a smooth shift by Clinton. Focusing on the March 4 contests in Ohio and Texas allowed her to dismiss the results of the five contests that went for Barack Obama over the weekend (Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington, Maine and the Virgin Islands) and ignore the upcoming results from Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Wisconsin and Hawaii, all of which appear to be going Obama's way.

Of course, this is reminiscent of the disastrous Rudy Giuliani strategy of ignoring Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to pin all his hopes on Florida. But Clinton was on a roll. Not only had she been able to incorporate spare parts left behind by Giuliani, she had also adopted some design elements of Donald Rumsfeld, who as Bush's defense secretary famously answered reporters' questions by asking himself different questions.

"Senator Obama suggested that the Clintons already had their chance . . . and that you're too polarizing," said a reporter at the news conference. "Is that true?"

Clinton responded with self-posed questions about Bill Clinton's years in office. "Were they politically difficult? You bet," she said. "Were they fights worth having? Yes, they were. . . . So am I willing to lay down a lot of political capital and work my heart out to achieve universal health care? Yes, I am."

It's not ideal for Clinton to retrofit her campaign with Giuliani and Rumsfeld designs. But Clinton has limited choices. After a strong showing on Super Tuesday last week, in which she appeared to blunt Obama's momentum, Clinton now faces losses in 10 straight contests. That means she needs to create a diversion until March 4.

GM's Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh, north of Baltimore, offered many opportunities for diversion. Reporters arriving at the facility were directed to wear safety goggles and vests. Clinton, exempt from the goggle-and-vest requirement, engaged in a technical discussion with a GM official.

Clinton: "So, this assembly weighs about 200 pounds?"

Official: "This one weighs close to 400 pounds."

Clinton: "You're kidding! This motor weighs 400 pounds?"

Official: "Yep."

Workers noticed that Clinton, even in the early stages of her tour, was already showing improvements.

"Your hair looks great. You got it cut, didn't you?" asked Jim Culver, a materials deliveryman.

"I did. Thanks for noticing," the candidate responded.

In another part of the factory, Clinton climbed into a hybrid Chevy Tahoe truck that uses the plant's transmission. Later, she told factory workers how she differed from Obama. "I am battle-scarred, and I'm proud of those scars," she said. "I'm not afraid of a fight."

In the news conference that followed, Clinton demonstrated that trait anew.

The ouster of campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle? "I am grateful for the enormously successful job that she has done."

The Obama campaign's point that when Bill Clinton was president Democrats lost control of Congress? "Well, that happens. You know, Franklin Roosevelt. . . . You win some, you lose some."

Might her string of losses to Obama hurt her chances in Ohio and Texas? "You all knew what the likely outcome of these recent contests were. And my husband didn't win any of these caucus states."

Glenn Thrush of Newsday got the last question, and it was a rough one. "It's not just the string of losses that you've had, it's the magnitude," he said. "You got your doors blown off. . . . Does it surprise you that you've lost these states by as much as you have?"

"No," the candidate answered. "These are caucus states. They are primarily dominated by activists. They don't represent the electorate." She also attributed her poor results in Louisiana to "a very strong and very proud African American electorate."

Blaming the voters is rarely good politics, but the newly retooled Clinton was revved up. "I feel good about where we are," she said. "Maybe it's just because I've been down this road a long time."

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