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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.

But others in the party, including some who have been backing Clinton, say Obama's winning streak has raised the stakes considerably. "She absolutely must win both Ohio and Texas to stay alive," one strategist noted. "Most of all, she has to find a way to change the fundamental dynamic of the race."

"She has got to get her voice back," wrote another strategist, who urged the Clinton campaign to recapture what worked in New Hampshire a month ago. "No one can stand hearing or seeing her because she does not sound or look authentic. She's got to show her authentic self. . . . Her problem is enormous, though she can overcome it. She needs to win and she needs a new voice, and she needs to manage her spouse."

Democrats outside the Clinton campaign said she must build her recovery -- particularly in Wisconsin and Ohio -- on white voters who do not have a college degree. These voters stayed largely loyal on Tuesday when other groups were defecting. They went 61 percent to 32 percent for Clinton in Maryland and 57 percent to 42 percent for Clinton in Virginia.

"Non-college whites are the key," one Democratic strategist noted. The other critical constituency, especially in Texas, is the Hispanic community, which she courted at stops Tuesday night and all day yesterday. Penn said Hispanics could make up as much as 40 percent of the Democratic electorate there.

But several strategists said Texas presents some unusual challenges for Clinton, including a complicated formula by which delegates are apportioned that may favor a candidate who pulls more strongly in districts with African American majorities. In addition, Texas apportions delegates on the basis of a primary and caucuses, held on the same day, giving a potential advantage to the well-organized Obama operation.

"Considering Texas, I think she should concentrate all she has on beating expectations in Wisconsin," a veteran strategist said.

Changes at the top of Clinton's staff are likely to generate fresh thinking about how to wage the campaign in the rest of the primaries and caucuses. Williams has begun to reach out beyond the tight inner circle for advice from other Democrats, including several former Clinton White House veterans and media consultant David Doak.

Clinton campaign officials have put new emphasis on building up their field organizations, where Obama has been strong. In a conference call describing the road ahead, Penn, senior adviser Howard Wolfson and field director Guy Cecil said the campaign is opening offices and hiring staffers in all states with remaining contests. States such as Montana and Wyoming will draw new resources from the Clinton team, and even Puerto Rico will be on the map, they said.

"We expect change to begin March 4," Penn said.

Kornblut, traveling with the Clinton campaign, reported from Texas.

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