'She Could Accept Losing. She Could Not Accept Quitting.'

The Post's Dan Balz assesses the final months of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.Editor: Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.comFootage: Ed O'Keefe, Jacqueline Refo, Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 5, 2008

In a campaign of near-deaths and premature obituaries, the night of May 6 will be remembered inside Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign as the moment it really ended.

The staff had settled into the war room at the campaign's Arlington headquarters. Mexican food, as always, had been ordered. The candidate was in Indianapolis. All anticipated another good night in a campaign that had put together an impressive streak of big-state primary victories in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania over the previous two months.

But whatever slim hopes Clinton had for an improbable comeback died with the disappointing results in the last two big primaries of the campaign -- a narrower-than-hoped-for victory in Indiana and a double-digit loss in North Carolina -- and the commentary that accompanied them. When NBC's Tim Russert flatly declared the Democratic race over around midnight, one adviser recalled, "the air came out of the room."

In subsequent days, a debate that had raged throughout the long nomination battle -- whether to attack Barack Obama or present Clinton positively -- virtually disappeared. What negative ads had been run were removed. The senator from New York, save for two notable slips, stopped criticizing Obama and focused on making the case for herself. Other defeats and other victories, including a win in West Virginia by 41 points, followed.

But there was a sense of resignation within the campaign. She would carry on, but the outcome was inevitable. "She could accept losing," one adviser said. "She could not accept quitting."

In many respects, the final chapter of the Clinton campaign was the best of times for a candidacy that began with Clinton seen as an almost-inevitable nominee and ended with the former first lady fighting off calls to quit. Aides look back at a campaign that, as it finished, functioned effectively and mostly collegially after months of turmoil and bitter internecine warfare. Clinton found her voice, liberated by the reality of the hill she had to climb and by her ability to focus on rising economic concerns among voters.

"Over the last four months we've won more states, more delegates, more votes," communications director Howard Wolfson said yesterday. "We won two states that we started out behind in and were not supposed to win. I'm proud of the way we closed and wish that that level of success had been the case throughout."

In reality, Clinton lost the nomination long before May 6. The early mistakes have been well documented: a flawed message that focused too much on inevitability and not enough on change; a failure to make Clinton more appealing to Iowa voters; a strategic miscalculation about the importance of caucus states; a spouse, former president Bill Clinton, who intruded as much as he aided his wife; a campaign that was at times dysfunctional.

Her success came mostly when it was too late. Clinton's strategy was predicated by necessity on convincing uncommitted superdelegates that she would be a stronger nominee than Obama. Despite victories in key states over the past few months, she and her advisers found those party leaders and elected officials impervious to events.

Asked why the campaign could never crack the superdelegates, who had started out predisposed toward her candidacy, Geoff Garin, one of the top strategists, said yesterday, "I think it's a mystery and an irony, and an irony in the sense that Hillary was seen as inevitable when it didn't matter and Obama was seen as inevitable when it did."

Obama's Troubles

Clinton's victories in the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4 revived her candidacy, and a series of mistakes by Obama gave it hope.

The first came on March 14, when an explosive video of Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., came to light. Clinton and her team saw the Wright controversy for what it was, a major challenge to Obama's candidacy and a potentially significant problem in a general election.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company