This has been the rapid-fire presidential primary and caucus schedule that Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and her strategists thought they wanted—one that benefited the presumptive front-runner. The candidate with the money, the organization, the name recognition.
The goal was to come out of the gates strong the first week in January, carry a deluge of contests a month later on Super Tuesday, and bingo—her delegate count is in the stratosphere, and the nomination is all but wrapped up six months before the party convention in Denver.
But now, with 10 straight losses to well-funded rival Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton is trailing in both delegates and the popular vote, the first drafts of her campaign's obituary are already written, and she finds herself fighting for more time. And with a devastating loss in Wisconsin, where Obama bested her among her once core supporters, and only a dozen days before voters in Texas and Ohio decide whether her on-life-support campaign can rally, Clinton's quest has taken on an air of desperation.
"Ohio is very different than Wisconsin," Clinton pollster Mark Penn said today in a call with reporters, scoffing at the notion that Clinton's Badger State slap-down among women, whites, the middle class, and those without a college education presaged her future in Ohio. She even lost among voters who said their top issue was the economy—the subject of her one of her most consistent messages. But Ohio could be just as difficult for Clinton. The demographics of primary voters who turned out in Ohio and Wisconsin in 2004 were almost identical, except that 14 percent of Ohio voters were African-American compared with 6 percent in Wisconsin. Yesterday, exit polls showed that African-Americans accounted for 8 percent of Democratic primary voters in Wisconsin and, as they have in other states, voted overwhelmingly for Obama.
"We have said consistently that February was going to be a better month for Senator Obama than it was going to be for us," Clinton strategist Howard Wolfson said Wednesday. "What was predicted has come to pass." The campaign says it has two debates and nearly two weeks to make its case. (Wolfson said he has no knowledge of a pro-Clinton 527 political interest group that has formed to raise money and run ads for Clinton in Ohio.) And advisers are keeping their fingers crossed that more intense media scrutiny of Obama leading into the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries will take a toll on the new front-runner.
But the dings Obama has taken in recent days over his use of parts of speeches given by his friend, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; his foreign policy inexperience; and his equivocations on an earlier pledge to use public financing if he's the party nominee have so far amounted to only that: dings. He has continued to rise in the polls in both of the crucial primary states—it's now a dead heat in Texas, and Clinton has been on a slide in Ohio, where she's seen her once 20-plus-percentage-point lead dwindle to 9 points in a SurveyUSA poll taken Monday and Tuesday.
So the Clinton strategy? Good debate performances, heavy ad buys, and superdelegates, superdelegates, superdelegates—the party's top elected officials, national committee members, and assorted bigwigs. Neither candidate, her aides predicted, will have enough delegates secured through the primary and caucus system to lock up the nomination, and they will continue their courting of the uncommitted superdelegates.
Clinton is trailing Obama in committed delegates—the Clinton camp says she needs 75 to catch up; Obama's people say it's double that. "It's not a huge number," says Clinton adviser Harold Ickes. "We expect she will close the gap with Mr. Obama substantially by Puerto Rico." Puerto Rico's June 7 contest is the last. It's an ambitious prediction, even for a campaign that, according to Wolfson, doesn't believe voters are basing their decisions on momentum.
Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe today said that Clinton would need to win 65 percent of the vote in the big states March 4. "Nice of him to try to set a bar for us," Ickes said, but 65 percent is a "far reach—and there's no expectation we're going to hit that number." But Clinton will have to get to a convincing number in both Ohio and Texas to stay relevant. "No question," says Wolfson of Ohio and Texas, "they are critically, critically important."