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It's All Uphill From Here

Clinton, ignoring her campaign's losses in four states the previous weekend, stayed upbeat during a visit to the National Council of Negro Women.
Clinton, ignoring her campaign's losses in four states the previous weekend, stayed upbeat during a visit to the National Council of Negro Women. (By Carolyn Kaster -- Associated Press)

"She's very comfortable dealing with the media and is perfectly willing to take questions," Hattaway says. "It's got its pluses and minuses. There are those who say it's pushing you off your message of the day. But, by and large, it's good to be accessible, and she's good at it."

On her campaign plane, Clinton started coming back to the press section for off-the-record chats, usually harmless but sometimes including comments that contradicted what she was saying publicly, according to participants. Two weeks ago part of the media contingent revolted, saying the conversations did them no good if they couldn't use the information. Since then, although she walked the aisle with a tray of chocolates to hand out on Valentine's Day, the airborne sessions have dwindled.

When the campaign offered to send Chelsea Clinton -- who never grants interviews -- to the back of the plane, some journalists objected to the off-the-record restriction, and the candidate's daughter bagged the idea.

Accessibility, though, doesn't necessarily translate into candor. And examining the way Clinton answers media questions helps explain why she is portrayed as a conventional politician pitted against a cultural phenomenon.

Last Monday, when ABC's Jake Tapper asked about the obvious problems in her campaign, Clinton said she'd had a "great night" on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, an "enormous response" from donors after lending her campaign money, and that the replacement of campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle was "Patti's decision" -- granting not a glimmer of recognition that anything was less than perfect.

On Tuesday night, when she was swamped in the Potomac primaries, Clinton gave a speech in Texas that made no mention of the results. Reporters were incredulous the next day when she stuck to her everything's-fine stance at a media availability: "Some weeks one of us is up, and the other's down, and then we reverse it." What about Obama pulling ahead in delegates? "That's what I always thought would happen."

A similar dynamic was on display in a "60 Minutes" interview, when Katie Couric couldn't get her to acknowledge that she ever contemplates losing the nomination. "You have to believe you're going to win," Clinton insisted.

At an MSNBC debate last month, when Tim Russert asked the candidates to name their greatest weakness, Obama made the minor admission that he has trouble keeping track of paperwork. And Clinton's confession? She gets "impatient" and "really frustrated when people don't seem to understand that we can do so much more to help each other."

By late last week, some pundits were conjuring up scenarios for a Clinton comeback, if only to find something new to say. But she was still depicted as a mathematical long shot.

A national figure since 1992, Clinton is a disciplined and detail-oriented candidate, with a style that produces few sparks, while Obama is filling basketball arenas with thunderous oratory. That is why her choking up in a New Hampshire coffee shop became such a huge story -- because we rarely get a peek behind the steely exterior.

By contrast, there is little question that some journalists have gotten swept up in the Obama excitement. After Obama's victory speech Tuesday, MSNBC's Chris Matthews said he "felt this thrill going up my leg." Some reporters have brought their kids to Obama events, while others have danced to the music played at the rallies.

Obama has defied the laws of journalistic gravity, somehow avoiding the usual scrutiny applied to front-runners. A few attempts to examine his life and record -- such as a Times piece on Obama's pattern of voting "present" in the Illinois legislature, and another on Obama watering down a bill affecting a nuclear power company that contributed to his campaign -- barely caused a ripple. Now Obama's wife, Michelle, who did interviews with Larry King and Couric last week, is getting the treatment, drawing mostly soft-focus questions. A Newsweek cover story out today calls her "direct and plain-spoken, with an edgy sense of humor . . . she can be tough, and even a little steely." She is "outspoken, strong-willed, funny, gutsy, and sometimes sarcastic," cutting "an athletic and authoritative figure," a front-page Times profile declared.

A handful of columnists, such as Time's Joe Klein, have questioned whether the Obama campaign has cultish qualities, but they are in the minority. It took a British magazine, the Economist, to carry the cover headline last week: "But could he deliver?"

While few in the media world will say so out loud, a Hillary collapse ("The Fall of the House of Clinton," as a Weekly Standard cover put it last month) is a more dramatic outcome than a win by the woman originally depicted as inevitable. But there is considerable danger in writing that story prematurely.


"Top Officials See Bleaker Outlook for the Economy" -- Friday's New York Times

"Bernanke Forecasts Growth" -- Friday's Washington Post

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