By Peter Baker and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton raced from border towns on the Rio Grande to farm communities in the Midwest trying to salvage her troubled presidential campaign in recent days, advisers at her Arlington headquarters were awash in mixed feelings about whether she should go on.
Decisive victories in both Ohio and Texas, they agreed, would justify staying in the race until the next big primary in Pennsylvania in seven weeks. Defeats in both of the big states would spell the end. But the prospect of a split decision or close results generated sharply different judgments from her strategists about her future.
Clinton wiped away the debate last night with a robust victory in Ohio and a narrow win in Texas. But as she vowed to keep campaigning, the tight vote in Texas signaled she may yet face a tough decision in coming weeks. The slim margin in the Texas popular vote and an additional caucus process in which she trailed made clear that she would not win enough delegates to put a major dent in Sen. Barack Obama's lead. And regardless of the results, she emerged from the crucible of Ohio and Texas with a campaign mired in debt and riven by dissension
Clinton plans to use her triumphs in Ohio and Texas, as well as in Rhode Island, to argue that she still has a credible claim to the Democratic nomination, despite the delegate math. Many in her circle believe she finally recaptured momentum on the campaign trail in recent days and managed to put Obama on the defensive by questioning his readiness to serve as commander in chief. If nothing else, they hope she has earned a new lease to make her case to the nation.
Appearing before jubilant supporters in Columbus last night, an energized Clinton seized on the Ohio victory and declared that she will go "all the way" to the White House. "Keep on watching," she said. "Together, we're going to make history."
As the results came in, aides reported that the dark mood that has clouded her campaign headquarters for weeks had finally lifted, and talk of dropping out was fading. "It means she goes on," a senior campaign strategist said on the condition of anonymity. "All the late-breaking voters went with her, and the next batch of states favor her. He is starting to get scrutiny like he has never seen before, and he is out of material to talk about on the trail."
Another Democrat who has advised her noted that Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have made a career of refusing to give in when the establishment has counted them out. "She doesn't give up," the Democrat said. "He doesn't give up."
Critical to Clinton's prospect of victory are the superdelegates, the nearly 800 elected officials and party leaders who can vote any way they choose. Her campaign envisions what aides call a "buyer's remorse" strategy of raising enough doubts about the first-term senator from Illinois through increasingly vigorous attacks and tougher media scrutiny to convince the superdelegates that it would be too risky to nominate him.
That reflects the recognition that it would be enormously difficult for Clinton to overtake Obama in the pledged delegates chosen by voters in primaries and caucuses. By some calculations, Clinton would need to win more than 60 percent of the vote in the dozen contests remaining between now and June 7 to catch Obama in pledged delegates -- a steep challenge given that, so far, she has won that much in only one state, her onetime adopted home of Arkansas. Even in New York, where she is a sitting senator, she won 57 percent of the vote. She won 55 percent in Michigan, where Obama was not even on the ballot.
"Her durability is impressive if not astonishing, but she is still looking at some pretty cold, hard numbers in the race," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who initially ran the 2004 primary campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "She's running out of time, she's running out of space." He described a Clinton nomination even with wins in Texas and Ohio as "impossible, really."
Steve McMahon, another Democratic strategist who is not working for either candidate, said the odds are long. "It's difficult to see how the math works for Senator Clinton," he said. "If you look at most models out there circulating, the one thing that's consistent is that she has to perform pretty strongly in order to have any hope of making up the deficit among elected delegates."
Still, Clinton supporters said yesterday's results suggested that Obama has not been able to close the deal, leaving her an opening. "She has lost 11 states in a row -- and the closest was Wisconsin, which she lost by 17" percentage points, said Paul Begala, who was a White House aide to her husband. "The theory of momentum suggested Obama should roll up equally large margins today, but voters seem to want to keep this race going. I suspect Senator Clinton agrees with them."
Indeed, Clinton had hinted Monday that she was ready to keep the race going. "I'm just getting warmed up," she said. She seemed to surge on the strength of attacks on Obama's leadership preparation, conflicting statements about the North American Free Trade Agreement and connections to fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko, whose trial on unrelated extortion and money laundering charges opened Monday.
But candidates rarely admit they are considering dropping out until the moment they do. And Clinton, until the Ohio results came in, deflected questions about her plans yesterday, saying that she did not like to make predictions when asked repeatedly what she would do if she lost Texas, Ohio or both.
"No person has ever won the White House without winning the Ohio primary in either party, so I think Ohio is pretty important," Clinton said in an interview with the NBC affiliate in Columbus. "The voters are not ready for this to be over. They want to be sure they are picking the person who would be the strongest nominee against John McCain."
Clinton has been counting on Ohio and Texas to vault her back into contention after losing every contest since Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. Her strong showings in those states may now help curb what some Clinton strategists had expected to be escalating calls from senior Democrats to end her campaign in the interest of pulling the party together to face McCain, the Republican nominee. But Obama's allies said they would try to avoid piling on, recognizing that it might only prod her to stay in.
"I don't think anybody in the Obama campaign is going to tell her to get out," said former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), an Obama supporter. "Only Hillary can decide what's right and what her future course should be. It becomes increasingly difficult to see mathematically how she can do it, but there may be other reasons to stay involved other than winning the nomination."
Her organization, though, is drained of money and energy. Outgunned by Obama in the fundraising department, the Clinton campaign is carrying millions of dollars in debt, although officials would not say how much, and it threw everything it had into Texas and Ohio. Campaign aides expressed optimism that she will draw a new infusion of money after these primaries and have enough to go forward, although that remains unclear.
Perhaps just as significant, many on her team appear exhausted and dispirited. Advisers have not waited for Ohio and Texas to launch into a furious debate about whom to blame for her problems. Senior advisers described the infighting as debilitating and destructive, with some members of her inner circle barely speaking to one another. Many fault Mark Penn, the campaign's chief strategist, for crafting a message they said did not match the mood of the year. Penn's allies blame other advisers for mismanaging campaign finances and not putting organizations on the ground in many caucus states.
As recently as last week, there were divisions among top advisers over which advertisement to use against Obama -- one attacking his Iraq war position, or one featuring a "3 a.m. call" to the White House that describes Clinton as better prepared to be president. The latter advertisement won out. But Clinton advisers were infuriated about the original debate, blaming Penn for encouraging her to cling to an unsuccessful argument -- that Obama's deeds have not matched his stated opposition to the Iraq war.
And even though Penn claimed credit for the phone-call ad, senior Clinton advisers expressed confusion over whether Penn or Austin ad guru Roy Spence had made it. Penn's allies said he made the ad -- and insisted on airing it over the objections of other senior advisers, including Mandy Grunwald, who is technically in charge of ad making. Penn wrote the ad, his allies said, and Grunwald reluctantly made it, but then tried to get it spiked.
The sniping over the ad was the latest expression of divisions within a team that has never been cohesive. Advisers complained bitterly about one other, and stories in the media delineated their differences. Several people inside the campaign said earlier that if Clinton won last night, it would be despite her campaign, not because of it.
Moving forward, Clinton officials think she will probably lose the next two contests, in Wyoming on Saturday and Mississippi on Tuesday. Their firewall, they hope, is Pennsylvania on April 22, giving Clinton time to continue raising doubts about Obama's experience, questioning his sincerity about toughening trade laws and appealing to women in a state that mirrors Ohio's working-class demographics. Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a strong Clinton ally, believes he could engineer a victory for her.
"The streak of losses has been snapped," one adviser said last night. "I think we touched bottom a week ago, and we've been coming back up, and the question was: Did we have enough time? And so far, based on the results, we did."