By Anne E. Kornblut and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
After five consecutive defeats, a $5 million personal loan and a campaign staff shake-up, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will be a distinct underdog in today's three primaries, the latest challenge in the pursuit of a nomination that even many of her supporters worry could soon begin slipping out of her reach.
Several Clinton supporters said yesterday that they have received clear signals from the campaign in recent days that she is aware of the problems but added that they believe she must win upcoming contests in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania to keep pace with the surging candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama.
Clinton has tried to move quickly to regain her footing after suffering convincing defeats in five primaries and caucuses over the weekend. She replaced her campaign manager and cast herself as a likely loser in today's races in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, even as her advisers held a conference call to acknowledge that they may not win another nominating contest until March.
But recent events have unnerved some ardent Clinton supporters and, perhaps more important, donors. Several fundraisers said changes in campaign leadership, coupled with reports of financial hardship, have vexed contributors. Richard Schiffrin, a Philadelphia lawyer and major fundraiser for Clinton, said that "there's always the risk this could be seen as a sign of trouble."
"But I think the campaign is actually moving forward in a somewhat predictable way. If [Obama] wins Texas and Ohio, that will be news. But we plan on winning those states," he said.
"I think people would prefer to have a comfortable lead. I think this is a very close race between two special candidates," Schiffrin said. "We're going to let the process play out. I think donors are always unsettled if they're not sure who the winning candidate is going to be."
Nadadur Vardhan, a Los Angeles-based financial consultant and Clinton fundraiser, said yesterday that the decision to make changes in her campaign came just in time. "They needed some kind of jolt at this point of time," Vardhan said.
"At least in terms of perception, this makes people like me feel that they're conscious of the fact that something drastic has to be done," he said. He said he believed changes would be necessary for Clinton to gain traction going into Texas and Ohio.
"We have to be totally focused. If something goes wrong in those states, it will not be good," he said. "For another two or three weeks, it's going to be difficult times, but I still think she will get through it. As long as they can hold for these 20 days, things will turn around."
Other longtime members of the Clintons' inner circle expressed similar anxiety, saying they had been put on notice that victory is required in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, with no exceptions. Still, one campaign insider said the mood has improved considerably since the weekend. That's when Clinton, with her candidacy on the line, swapped one loyalist for another in the job of campaign manager -- installing the woman one ally described as the "queen of Hillaryland," the coterie of women who have long allied themselves with Clinton, to right the ship.
Margaret A. Williams, 54, known as "Maggie," comes to the job on a more equal footing with the candidate than did the woman she replaces, Patti Solis Doyle. Williams is a manager who prizes discretion and hard work, colleagues said.
"She knows Hillary better than anybody in the campaign," said Lisa Caputo, a former Clinton press secretary. While Doyle has had more than 15 years in the Clinton orbit, Williams has been a confidante for more than two decades and survived some of the worst crises of the Clinton administration alongside her once and future boss. She was interrogated after the suicide of lawyer Vince Foster, accused of removing files from his office after his death, and she was one of the women who helped guide Clinton through the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The question for some Clinton allies is whether Williams can make the shifts needed to reverse Clinton's political fortunes after a string of losses. Although she has already lifted spirits in the campaign, Williams has not unveiled a new strategic vision. Her specialties are communications and management, not political field work, the area that has proved most challenging for Clinton so far.
Williams and Clinton met at the Children's Defense Fund in the 1980s, when Williams worked there and Clinton served on the board. The two found a "common worldview," Williams said in an interview published in The Washington Post earlier this year. In her autobiography, Clinton describes turning to Williams during her husband's 1992 presidential campaign when she was assembling her own staff. "I admired her skills as a leader and communicator and thought she would be able to handle with aplomb whatever happened," Clinton wrote.
Williams is a battle-tested operative -- she weathered the storms of the Clinton administration while serving as the first lady's chief of staff -- whom allies believe can "pick up the pieces" that have begun to drift, in the words of one. Described as warm, effusive and able to give orders with confidence, Williams began transitioning into the job weeks before it was made official. She has been seen around the Virginia headquarters recently, calling old Clinton friends to make sure they are still on board, quietly interviewing staff members to determine how to work most efficiently, and even wandering the halls thanking volunteers.
"You're going to see a crisper and more energetic campaign," a close friend of Clinton's predicted.
Saturday night, Clinton settled on her decision to replace Doyle, advisers said, and informed the senior staff by conference call on Sunday morning.
"She will be able to step in and seamlessly perform the responsibilities of campaign manager going forward," senior adviser Howard Wolfson said. "Both Patti and Maggie have been very strong in their longtime service to Senator Clinton. Patti did a magnificent job as campaign manager, and now Maggie is stepping in to assume those responsibilities, and she will also do a fabulous job."
After the Clintons left the White House, Williams worked in a number of high-profile positions, including serving as chief of staff to Bill Clinton, managing his policy agenda and overseeing the staff at the Clinton Foundation in New York, according to a biography posted on the Web site of the Harvard University Institute of Politics, where Williams served as an adviser.
Williams then helped launch Griffin Williams, a management consulting firm that aims to help clients "navigate organizational challenges, transition and change," according to its Web site.
Research director Lucy Shackelford and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.