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.
But they also knew that the topic was radioactive, particularly for a team that had been accused of injecting race into the nomination battle. "Our track record of dealing with race vis-à-vis his campaign is dismal," one official said.
Raising the issue publicly was so sensitive that when Harold Ickes, a senior strategist overseeing the delegate operation, mentioned in one interview that Wright had been raised in conversations by superdelegates, he was admonished by Maggie Williams, the campaign's new manager.
Clinton's team showed no such reluctance to engage after the next Obama misstep, after the Huffington Post Web site reported in April that Obama, at a San Francisco fundraiser, had described small-town Pennsylvanians as "bitter" over their economic situation and said that, as a result, they tend to "cling" to religion and guns.
"We thought that this was a legitimate and important conversation about who the Democratic Party stands for and how it stands for them," Garin said.
The Clinton high command treated the "bitter comment" as, in the words of one adviser, a "full-court, full-throated, no-holds-barred" opportunity. "It was a moment tied to the particular state where we were competing and where we needed a big victory. There was a recognition that it was something we needed to drive very hard, and we did."
Five days later, in the final debate of the primaries, ABC News moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos grilled Obama relentlessly over Wright, his association with 1960s radical William Ayers and even why he did not wear an American-flag pin on his lapel.
Clinton emerged from Pennsylvania with a victory that nearly matched her 10-point margin in Ohio. Her campaign responded with the message "The tide is turning."
Lifting spirits further still was a new campaign apparatus. Gone was Patti Solis Doyle, the less-experienced loyalist, replaced by the older and firmer Williams -- a professional management consultant who knew, in the words of one adviser, "how to say no."
Williams and another longtime confidante, Cheryl Mills, closed ranks around the candidate -- demanding an end to the backstabbing that had poisoned the campaign early on, returning phone calls and running meetings on time, making decisions that had lingered. Not everyone was happy. But for the first time, the office seemed to run relatively smoothly.
Gone, too -- or at least moved to the side -- was Mark Penn, the irascible chief strategist who had provoked so much ire during the early days of the race. Replaced by Garin, an affable and well-liked pollster, Penn took on a new role as the outside consigliore advising the Clintons to remain aggressive in the face of doubts about the campaign.
With Penn out of the top leadership, staff members felt that some of the dysfunction had been removed. Some even expressed warm feelings toward Penn, saying they could hear his advice in a more neutral way. "He is still sending in edits, but we can ignore them" was how one adviser put it.
The Clinton team still split along familiar lines, with some (including Wolfson and Mandy Grunwald) arguing for softer, more positive rhetoric, and others (including Penn) taking a hard line, encouraging the candidate to attack Obama. Penn also thought a far more aggressive strategy was needed in the effort to corral superdelegates. "Brute force" was his recommendation.
But the yelling matches were less frequent. "It's not a bad place to work anymore," one senior adviser said in late May, adding, with a wry smile: "Except we're losing."Great Expectations
What happened in Indiana and North Carolina was a classic case of expectations getting away from the campaign. Obama had always been heavily favored in North Carolina because of the size of the state's African American vote. Indiana appeared to be more of a tossup, although the campaign's early polls showed Obama leading by eight or nine points.
Ace Smith had been sent to North Carolina after pulling off important victories in California and Texas. Robby Mook, who had earned the respect of the campaign for his work in Nevada and Ohio, was put in charge of Indiana.
In late March, the Clinton team gathered at the candidate's home in Northwest Washington, and there, according to several present, Smith offered an optimistic assessment of North Carolina. Smith declined to comment about what he said was a private meeting. But, he said, "we were cornered and we had to fight that battle, and when you go into fight a battle you'd better be optimistic or you're doomed to failure from the beginning."
Others did not begrudge Smith his determination to fight for all the resources he could muster from a team that believed the best outcome was holding Obama to a single-digit margin of victory. But the campaign's problems were compounded by the enthusiasm of the Clintons themselves, who thought they were making progress in the state. North Carolina, Hillary Clinton told an audience days before the primary, could be a "game-changer."
Nothing the campaign could say later could roll back her confidence.
What hurt her in North Carolina was a self-inflicted wound -- misstatements about a trip she took to Bosnia as first lady when, she claimed, her entourage had to dodge sniper fire upon their arrival.
A second factor may have been Wright, who, a week before the primary, reappeared for the first time since the controversial video was aired and repeated many of his most controversial views at the National Press Club. Obama, after a day of hesitation, denounced his former pastor and broke with him.
Conventional wisdom suggested that the second episode would crystallize opposition to Obama and help Clinton in North Carolina. In retrospect, Clinton advisers believe, it actually hardened Obama's support in the black community.
Hillary and Bill Clinton were optimistic as they approached primary day on May 6. They dipped once again into their personal fortune, lending her campaign $1.4 million more in the week before the Indiana and North Carolina votes. At least three campaign officials described the Clintons as furious when they saw the results in the two states.
Indiana proved to be the bigger disappointment, even though Clinton won there. What irked her advisers was that Clinton got no credit for what they saw as a come-from-behind victory. Even more irritating was that, because ballots were being held back in the Obama stronghold of Lake County, across the state line from his home town, Chicago, the networks declined to call the race for Clinton until after midnight.
The most effective phase of her campaign "came to a screeching halt the night of Indiana and North Carolina," said a senior aide. "The change was discernible almost immediately.'Transformative Experience'
From the beginning, Clinton counted on women to deliver her victory. She described in virtually every speech how she was struck by two kinds of people at her events: women in their 90s who were born before women were allowed to vote, and parents "lifting their little girls and their little boys onto their shoulders and whispering, 'See, you can be anything you want to be.' "
Later in the campaign, some female staff members suggested taking that line out of her speech, fearing it was no longer true. "We have to stop saying that; we've proven the opposite," one woman argued.
Clinton refused -- she kept saying the line, right through Tuesday -- but privately she complained about a litany of incidents that she felt were proof of continued sexism. Why, she asked her advisers, did it seem that any racial bias was met with public outrage, but sexist comments were treated as jokes?
In an interview with The Washington Post last month, Clinton described some of the media coverage of the race as "deeply offensive to millions of women" -- a remark that aides later said they worried came across as self-pitying, but that was sincerely felt.
"She started to see gender inequity in a more profound way than she ever has," one top adviser said.
In that way more than any other, the adviser said, the campaign was a "totally transformative experience" for Clinton. She concluded that "there is a lot more sexism than racism," the adviser said. It was a difficult sentiment to square with the results in the later states, as white men voted for Clinton in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and South Dakota. But it lingered.
It was in that context that NARAL Pro-Choice America, the prominent abortion rights group, delivered one of the harshest blows of the campaign, endorsing Obama on the same day that former senator John Edwards of North Carolina did. NARAL's act hurt Clinton and her staff: They felt it was a betrayal of her life's work, an unnecessary and unjustified slap that would make little difference in the race anyway.
When Nancy Keenan, NARAL's president, called Wolfson to tell him about the decision, he lost his temper and yelled at her for her lack of respect.
It was clear: Clinton was losing. Each day brought an unhappy reminder. When she made a remark about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in a meeting with the board of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota, it provoked a hailstorm of criticism -- even though she had said it before. The reaction infuriated Clinton, who believed that, after a late effort to court the news media, she was not given the benefit of the doubt.
After Clinton won West Virginia, that state's senior senator, Robert C. Byrd, endorsed Obama. Her traveling press corps shrank. She sounded by turns liberated and frustrated, according to people who worked with her closely and talked to her regularly.
"The superdelegates and elites kept drifting away, but the working class became more and more enthusiastic about her," Penn said. "She had truly become the president for the invisibles that she talked about all campaign, starting in New Hampshire."
Clinton told her advisers that one reason she was committed to staying in was out of loyalty to those supporters, and her belief that they could be rallied to Obama more easily if she was allowed to finish the campaign on her own terms.
During the campaign's final weekend, in Puerto Rico, she went dancing and drinking, spending an entire sweltering afternoon on the back of a flatbed truck, caravanning through dingy neighborhoods. It was easy to forget -- for a little while, anyway -- that thousands of miles to the north, the Democratic National Committee was meeting to decide whether to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan, Clinton's last hope of changing the delegate equation in a significant way.
That meeting in Washington brought a final rejection by the party insiders who once had been seen as her natural constituents, as the Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to seat the two delegations but give the delegates half a vote each. The Michigan compromise in particular was seen by the campaign as a slap in the face.
On Monday night, the Clintons flew back to New York after a long day of campaigning in South Dakota, a state she would win on the day Obama clinched the nomination. On the plane ride home, they sat in the front row, and no one dared talk to them. One aide said the tension in the front cabin -- visible to reporters in the back -- was painful to endure.
Another member of the inner circle described Bill Clinton as coming "unhinged" in the final hours, raising his voice in phone calls with superdelegates, constantly revisiting his wife's options for staying in the race. "He keeps asking me, 'What about so-and-so? What about so-and-so?' " the supporter recalled, saying the former president wanted constant updates on superdelegate moves.
What had been steady movement toward Obama was about to become an irreversible stream, so strong that moments after the polls closed on Tuesday night, Obama had more than the 2,118 delegates needed to secure the nomination. Yesterday, Clinton signaled that she would withdraw by week's end.