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Team Clinton: Down, and Out of Touch

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

They are in the last throes, if you will.

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As Vice President Cheney knows, such predictions can be perilous. Still, there was no mistaking a certain flailing, a lashing-out, as two Clinton advisers sat down for a bacon-and-eggs session yesterday at the St. Regis Hotel.

The Christian Science Monitor had assembled the éminences grises of the Washington press corps -- among them David Broder of The Post, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and columnist Mark Shields -- for what turned out to be a fascinating tour of an alternate universe.

First came Harold Ickes, who gave a presentation about Hillary Rodham Clinton's prospects that severed all ties with reality. "We're on the way to locking this nomination down," he said of a candidate who appears, if anything, headed in the other direction.

But before the breakfast crowd had a chance to digest that, they were served another, stranger course by Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer. Asked about an accusation on the Drudge Report that Clinton staffers had circulated a photo of Barack Obama wearing Somali tribal dress, Singer let 'er rip.

"I find it interesting that in a room of such esteemed journalists that Mr. Drudge has become your respected assignment editor," he lectured. "I find it to be a reflection of one of the problems that's gone on with the overall coverage of this campaign." He went on to chide the journalists for their "woefully inadequate" coverage of Obama, "a point that has been certainly backed up by the 'Saturday Night Live' skit that opened the show this past Saturday evening, which I would refer you all to."

The brief moment explained everything about the bitter relations between Clinton's campaign and the media: Singer taunting the likes of Broder, who began covering presidential politics two decades before Singer was born, with a comedy sketch that showed debate moderators fawning over Obama.

"That's your assignment editor?" responded Post columnist Ruth Marcus.

"That's my assignment editor," Singer affirmed.

That Clinton's spokesman is taking his cues from late-night comedy is as good an indication as any of where things stand in the onetime front-runner's campaign. To keep the press from declaring the race over before the voters of Ohio and Texas have their say next week, Clinton aides have resorted to a mixture of surreal happy talk and angry accusation.

Yesterday, Ickes played the good cop. "We think we are on the verge of our next up cycle," he reported, even suggesting the apparent impossibility that Clinton "may be running even" with Obama when all the contests are over. "This race is very close," he judged. "This is tight as a tick."

The reporters were dubious. The Monitor's Dave Cook mused about the consequences of Clinton "battling after there's not much chance."

"For the love of God, we can't say there's not much chance here," Ickes maintained.

David Chalian of ABC News reminded Ickes that Obama's lead in delegates is now of the size Ickes had said would be "significant."

"As we all know in this city, I have a very short memory," Ickes answered.

At one point, he warned of "a bitter and potentially very divisive credentials fight" at the Democratic convention. At another point, he compared the race to 1972, when a strong front-runner, Ed Muskie (now played by Clinton), was upended by an antiwar candidate, George McGovern (now played by Obama), who lost to the Republicans. "The fact is, he could not carry his weight in the general election," Ickes argued.

But Ickes could suspend reality for only so long. He referred to Clinton's opponent at one point as "Senator Barack," swapped 1992 for 1972 and Michigan for Vermont, and said of the Pennsylvania primary: "Um, what month is it?" Eventually, Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News drew a confession out of Ickes: "I think if we lose in Texas and Ohio, Mrs. Clinton will have to make her decisions as to whether she goes forward or not."

Ickes's return to Earth seemed only to further outrage Singer.

When Amy Chozick of the Wall Street Journal asked about how combative Clinton would be in tonight's debate with Obama, Singer informed her that it was an "absurd" question. "I don't think . . . any of our senior people have the ESP skills that you all ascribe to us," he said.

When Time's Jay Newton-Small inquired about the Obama photo on Drudge, Singer used the occasion to complain about the press's failure to examine Obama's ties to violent radicals who were part of the Weathermen of the 1960s. "As far as I can tell, there was absolutely no follow-up on the part of the Obama traveling press corps," he said.

Even Broder, asking about why Clinton had abandoned the North American Free Trade Agreement, was informed by Singer that "elections are about the future."

Cook, the host, got similar treatment when he asked why Clinton hasn't released her tax returns. "When she's the general-election nominee, she'll release the tax returns," Singer said.

After the breakfast, one of the questioners asked Singer whether he could elaborate on the tax-return issue. He dismissed her with more hostility. When the reporter suggested that Singer was being antagonistic, the spokesman explained.

"Sixteen months into this," he said, "I'm just angry."


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