Turning It Around
Down in polls after an Iowa loss, Hillary Clinton had no victory speech for New Hampshire. But then an unexpected thing happened: She won.
Thursday, January 10, 2008; Page A01
In a campaign run by conference calls, this one stood out. It was Dec. 2, just a month before the Iowa caucuses, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was furious. She did not yell, but her voice, serious and deep, bristled with irritation over how things were going for her in Iowa.
Iowans were not getting her message, she complained, and her staff did not seem to grasp the depth of the problem. "Our communications just isn't measuring up to our field and fundraising," Clinton said, according to participants. She snapped at aides trying to reassure her. When campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle promised a new Iowa plan by day's end, Clinton groused that she had been asking for one for weeks. Solis Doyle flew to Des Moines the next day and checked in to the Embassy Suites for the duration.
The crisis in the Clinton camp would deepen in the coming weeks as the New York senator and national front-runner headed to a devastating defeat in Iowa, only to rebound with a surprising comeback victory Tuesday in New Hampshire. The dramatic swings of fortune were classic Clinton, the latest manifestation of a boom-and-bust cycle that has helped define Hillary and Bill Clinton for the past 16 years. From defeat comes victory, from adversity comes triumph -- it was a familiar narrative filled with moments of anger, grievance and vindication.
The path to the presidency is rarely smooth, but the turmoil of the past few weeks disrupted what had appeared to be an extraordinarily methodical march to the Democratic nomination. A campaign built on a strategy of establishing that a woman was experienced enough to be president succeeded so much that suddenly Clinton became the symbol of status quo running against the agent of change, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). Lulled into false confidence by a gusher of money and sky-high poll numbers, the Clinton team recognized the threat late and was forced to retool literally on the fly as it jetted from Iowa to New Hampshire last Thursday night.
Along the way came the sorts of critical strategic choices and internal debates that often characterize high-level campaigns, particularly in Clinton world, according to an array of campaign insiders interviewed in recent weeks.
Bill Clinton and Mark Penn, the campaign's chief strategist, repeatedly agitated for an early assault on Obama, only to run into resistance from other advisers and campaign officials in Iowa and New Hampshire who thought it would backfire, according to Clinton advisers.
Howard Wolfson, the communications director, pressed to find ways to humanize the candidate, while Penn thought that was not the highest priority and focused instead on proving how tough she is, several advisers said. At one point, they said, Penn and media consultant Mandy Grunwald had engaged in so many "raging debates," as one put it, that they had stopped speaking.
By the last few days in New Hampshire, Clinton was no longer soliciting advice from her aides so much as telling them what to do. She sharpened her attack on Obama, portrayed him as a phony and fired back passionately in a debate Saturday night. She began mapping out a staff shake-up on the assumption that she would lose New Hampshire. She was no longer the inevitable candidate.
"Right after Iowa there was a lot of frustration," said Robert Zimmerman, a top Clinton fundraiser who tried to reassure her donors. "But then she seemed to turn a corner. She was going after primary voters, not fighting the general election. Since Saturday, they've been calling me, saying, 'It's about time. Why didn't this happen earlier?' "
But in the end, it may have been the exhaustion and stress of the moment that helped save her. Having been told so many times to reveal a little more of her personal side, she let down her guard on election eve in response to a question about how she was doing, choking up with emotion as she talked about how important the election is to the country.
Within 24 hours, New Hampshire voters -- especially women -- were streaming to the polls to vote for her, shocking everyone, including the candidate. Clinton had two prepared speeches, one for a "big defeat" and one for a "close defeat," an aide said. No victory speech had been written. Several top strategists agreed among themselves to resign if she lost.
"Everybody has a near-death experience," another adviser said. Now they hope that is all it was.