Hillary Clinton got a rousing reception when she returned to the Senate Tuesday after a brief vacation. She is described by friends as disappointed that her presidential bid failed but eager to move on. Her top priorities now are retiring her campaign debt, estimated at more than $20 million, and defeating the Republicans in November, her aides say.
Looking far ahead, Clinton is convinced that she could win the White House some day and doesn't want to burn her bridges by seeming to be a sore loser. So she was all smiles and graciousness, declaring that it's time for the Democrats to stand together and recapture the White House, which her husband held for eight years.
In a thoughtful postmortem on her loss, a senior adviser says that the Clintonites minimized for too long the unusual dynamic created this year by the public's deep desire for change, the dissatisfaction with President Bush and Washington elites, the intense opposition among Democrats to the Iraq war, and the overwhelming support that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama enjoyed among African-Americans as potentially the first black president. All these factors worked to Obama's huge advantage and to Clinton's detriment. "It couldn't have happened any other year," the adviser says.
Clinton aides admit that Obama ran a very disciplined, effective campaign and say Clinton didn't find her voice until it was too late. Mark Penn, her former chief strategist who was eventually dumped from the inner circle, at first persuaded her to emphasize her Washington experience, her toughness, and her readiness to be commander in chief "on Day One." But voters were more interested in change and wanted to know that the next president would understand their problems and improve their lives.
When Clinton finally began to consistently emphasize that the campaign was not about her but was about helping people, she caught fire in many areas of the country. But by then she was too far behind in the delegate race to catch up, her aides now admit.
On Thursday, Clinton and Obama are scheduled to meet in Washington to ask some of her fundraisers to collect money for him and to discuss ways to pay down her debt. Obama is urging his supporters to help in that effort.
On Friday, she is scheduled to campaign with Obama in Unity, N.H., to urge her supporters, especially women, to help Obama win the general election. Clinton and Obama each won 107 votes in the small New England town in the state's primary, and both sides hope that unity will be the watchword within the party for the rest of the campaign.
Regarding Topic A in the Democratic Party, Clinton would take the vice presidential nomination if it were offered, her aides say, but her strategists believe it is not likely that Obama and his inner circle will choose her. "Their heads are in a different place" from a month ago, when a Barack-Hillary ticket was a very hot topic, says a key Clinton adviser. Obama appears to have broadened the search to a relatively long list of about a dozen possibilities, despite Clinton's strong qualifications and the fact that she got 18 million votes in the primaries.
Obama and his advisers are said to have deep reservations about whether Hillary and especially Bill Clinton would be truly loyal to him in a crunch. A Hillary Clinton adviser admitted that Bill was "demonstrably undisciplined" when he harshly criticized Obama during the primaries, and this still bothers Obama and his team.
It didn't help matters when Bill Clinton issued only a terse statement of support Tuesday through his spokesman, Matt McKenna. "President Clinton is obviously committed to doing whatever he can and is asked to do to ensure Senator Obama is the next president of the United States," McKenna said. For some Obama loyalists, it was only tepid commitment, and they were hoping for a lot more.
As for how she will deal with the Democratic National Convention in Denver this August, Clinton seems inclined to be as cooperative as possible. She probably will allow her name to be placed in nomination but will withdraw immediately rather than proceed to a potentially divisive roll-call vote, her aides say.