Clinton Scrambles to Try to Reverse Obama's Momentum

By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 14, 2008

After big losses to Sen. Barack Obama in Tuesday's Potomac Primary, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled yesterday that she will challenge her rival more aggressively, launching new television ads and attempting to overcome the Obama campaign's clear organizational advantages.

The pummeling she took in Maryland, Virginia and the District raised new questions about her campaign's message and strategy, which Democratic strategists said she must fix if she hopes to slow Obama's growing momentum in time to defeat him in what are now must-win contests in Ohio and Texas on March 4.

"I don't believe she can wait to March 4," Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said. "She has to make a stand [in Wisconsin]. There is a national trend taking hold in state after state. The early polls show a big lead and then start to evaporate when the campaign gets engaged. Texas and Ohio are not demographic enclaves immune from the national political trend."

Added another Democratic strategist: "She is doing shockingly little right now to refresh and recharge her message, to make herself or her campaign interesting, or to offer a credible alternative Obama's narrative of what the race is about. . . . She has to find a way to do those things on the way to Texas and Ohio."

Maggie Williams, Clinton's new campaign manager, conveyed the sense of urgency felt inside the campaign when she said during a conference call she and Clinton held yesterday that a number of aides had spent the night at the Virginia headquarters.

Clinton was described as energetic during the 40-minute conference call with supporters, according to one person who listened in. She noted the campaign's fundraising of late and pointed out that Ohio and Texas have enough delegates at stake to vault her back into the lead if she does well.

Clinton's first step in trying to reverse Obama's momentum came early yesterday with a release of a new ad criticizing her rival for refusing to debate in Wisconsin before next Tuesday's primary. But while that suggested Clinton may get tougher with Obama, her initial moves were tentative. Speaking at a rally in McAllen, Tex., yesterday morning, she said: "I am in the solutions business. My opponent is in the promises business. I think we need answers, not questions."

Later, in Robstown, Tex., she addressed the issue of change that has been at the heart of Obama's message. "There's a lot of talk in this campaign about what kind of change we're going to have," she said. "Well, let me just say change is going to happen whether we want it or not. Change is part of life. Change is a constant. The question is who can master and direct change so it actually results in progress for America."

During a news conference, she smiled as she brushed off Tuesday's defeats, noting that her husband had lost Maryland in 1992. "Some weeks one of us is up, and the other's down, and then we reverse it," Clinton said.

The television ad in Wisconsin highlighted one goal of the Clinton campaign, which is to force Obama to agree to more debates. The two are scheduled to meet on Feb. 21 in Texas and on Feb. 26 in Ohio. But advisers to the senator from New York are anxious for more, believing debates are the best opportunity to shift the focus from talk of Obama's gathering momentum to comparisons on matters of substance and readiness.

Wisconsin presents a challenge to Clinton. The campaign had sent mixed signals about how actively she would compete there, and she can ill afford another loss the size of those she suffered on Tuesday. Lopsided victories by Obama not only add to his lead in the delegate hunt but create an unmistakable sense of momentum that could overwhelm Clinton on March 4.

Top Clinton strategists dismissed the idea that Obama's momentum is strong enough to carry him through the next three weeks, noting that perceptions have swung wildly from week to week depending on the outcome of state-by-state contests. Walter Mondale in 1984 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 lost key primaries before winning the nomination, chief strategist Mark Penn reminded reporters during a conference call.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company