Teetering on the Border

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, February 21, 2008

HIDALGO, Tex. Hillary Clinton, drubbed by Barack Obama in 10 straight votes, flew down to this dusty border town on Wednesday to make her last stand for the Democratic presidential nomination. But where was the cavalry?

On Tuesday night, Obama had packed in a capacity crowd of more than 18,000 at the Toyota Center in Houston, home of the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets. But when Clinton emerged to speak at the 6,800-seat Dodge Arena here -- home of a minor-league hockey team -- rows and rows of empty blue seats awaited.

Organizers had pulled out all the stops: a two-dozen-piece mariachi band, Mexican dancers, a cowboy-cowgirl dancing act, a goth rock band, even a guy throwing out T-shirts and shouting "Who's excited?" But it was no use. In the top row of the arena, Jose G. Bustos, wearing a Clinton T-shirt and sticker, had Section 120 to himself. He surveyed the crowd. "We were expecting a little more," he said.

After her defeat in the Wisconsin primary Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton on Wednesday did what Americans in trouble have done for centuries: She ran for the border. As has been her habit this primary season, she came up just short.

She ended up in this outpost on the Rio Grande with a view of the Mexican town of Reynosa. For a candidate who has lost 10 contests in a row to Barack Obama and is fast becoming the Mike Huckabee of the Democratic Party, she must have felt tempted to slip across the bridge and into Mexico, a fugitive from a coronation gone awry.

Instead, she made her stand here, on the home ice of the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees. And while it wasn't quite Davy Crockett material -- that honor goes to Republican Huckabee, who has scheduled a campaign event at the Alamo for Thursday -- Hidalgo proved a fitting place for a down-on-her-luck candidate.

This town has had its share of hard knocks, getting passed over by the railroads a century ago in favor of neighboring McAllen and then, in 1990, earning national attention for being the first place in the United States to be colonized by African "killer bees." Defiantly, town leaders commissioned a 20-foot-long, 10-foot-high, 2,000-pound killer bee statue. They named their minor-league hockey team the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees. "Hidalgo took a lemon and made honey-flavored lemonade!" the Chamber of Commerce chirps.

So, too, must Clinton decide what to do with her lemon. After Obama's big win in Wisconsin on Tuesday, his campaign claimed he had an insurmountable lead in delegates, and reporters dusted off their Clinton obituaries that had been shelved after her comebacks in New Hampshire in January and Super Tuesday on Feb. 5.

"Is it panic time yet?" asked NBC.

"It's panic-button time," answered the Associated Press.

The New York Times announced that her "road to victory is now a cliff walk." The New York Observer said Clinton is "down to her last out," and Karl Rove said "it's hard to see how she gets back into the game." Obama even added insult to the electoral injury he inflicted on Clinton; while Clinton was still speaking Tuesday night, Obama came out to give his victory speech, causing cable networks to drop their coverage of her.

Clinton has gambled it all on wins on March 4 in Ohio and here in Texas. Though Clinton advisers, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, spoke gamely of the Puerto Rico primary in June, they know that a loss in either Ohio or Texas would effectively end Clinton's candidacy. That means she could be down to her final two weeks as a viable presidential candidate.

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