Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hillary Clinton's Blueprint

At the Washington Post, Chris Cilliza reports:

A trio of senior advisers to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (N.Y.) presidential campaign held a conference call this afternoon to lay out what they believe is a blueprint that -- over the next two weeks -- will restore the race for the nomination to rough parity between the New York senator and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

The call came less than 24 hours after Obama claimed his 9th and 10th straight victories over Clinton with wins last night in Wisconsin's primary and Hawaii's caucuses. Those wins added to Obama's overall delegate lead and, as importantly, fed the sense of momentum surrounding the candidacy of the Illinois senator.

So, how can Clinton turn things around between now and March 4, when Ohio and Texas -- must wins for her future hopes in the race -- are set to vote.

Here's the battle plan and scenario that senior advisers Howard Wolfson, Mark Penn and Harold Ickes sketched out today.

1. Neither candidate will emerge from the primary fight with the 2,025 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Ickes, a consummate party insider, insisted that if the race plays out as expected (Clinton victories in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania) it is impossible for either candidate to secure the nomination on the strength of pledged delegates alone. "When this whole process is over on the 7th of June, both candidates will need a number of automatic [super] delegates to clinch the nomination," Ickes said. " We believe Mrs. Clinton will be able to get those." Ickes' theory presumes that superdelegates will resist calls to vote as their districts or states voted and instead make up their minds independent of what their constituents decide. It also presumes that superdelegates won't begin moving en masse to Obama as he looks more and more like the inevitable nominee.

2. Two Weeks is a Long Time in Political Terms.. Not since the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 has there been so much time in between votes in the Democratic primary. There will be 13 days without a single vote between today and Ohio/Texas -- an opportunity, the Clinton team believes, to make their case for their candidate and against Obama without the distraction of primaries/caucuses. "This is a full chance to lay out the case," said Penn this afternoon. Time could be Clinton's friend or enemy depending on external circumstances. The Teamsters' endorsement of Obama (and the potential Change To Win endorsement tomorrow) suggests that a pillar of the Democratic party is rallying behind him. For Clinton to take full advantage of the break in primary voting, she must hope that outside groups -- and superdelegates -- give her one last chance to make her case against Obama and show she is still a force to be reckoned with. If not, the time between now and the Ohio-Texas Two-Step may only serve to cement conventional wisdom behind Obama.

3. Debates Matter. The Clinton campaign has been clamoring for more debates with Obama and even used his unwillingness to debate her in Wisconsin in television ads (unsuccessfully as it turned out.) But, over the next 13 days the two candidates will face off twice -- tomorrow in Austin and next Tuesday in Cleveland. These will be the second and third head-to-head debates between the two Democrats; the first one, in Los Angeles on Feb. 1, struck The Fix as something of a draw, but the Clinton campaign clearly felt they got the better of the exchanges. The two upcoming nationally televised debates represent Clinton's best chance to change the fundamental dynamics of the race. For those skeptics who dismiss the idea that debates can change things, we need only point you to the Philadelphia debate in late October; Clinton's inability to give a straight answer to whether she supported a plan to give illegal immigrants driver's licenses set off a series of negative stories that turned this race from a coronation into a contest. Can Clinton score a similar blow sometimes over the next six days?

4. Obama is the frontrunner = more scrutiny. For the first we can remember, Ickes referred to the Illinois senator as the "frontrunner" in the race for the party's nomination. "Mr. Obama is the frontrunner," said Ickes. "There will be increased scrutiny on him and his ability to be president." Later in the call, Wolfson greatly expanded on this idea, arguing that the recent charges of Obama lifting speech lines from Gov. Deval Patrick (Mass.), further revelations into his relationship with "indicted political fixer" Tony Rezko and questions over Obama's commitment to campaign finance reform are all the result of that increased scrutiny. The Clinton campaign has to hope that the media turns the full force of its investigative powers on Obama over the next 13 days and that something previously unknown -- and damaging -- is unearthed. None of the laundry list of charges from Wolfson rises to the level of damaging at the moment -- with the possible exception of Obama's relationship with Rezko. Still, it seems as though if there were a hidden landmind that could potentially end Obama's candidacy, it would have been surfaced by now. A corollary of this argument is that Obama has not faced a serious Republican opponent in his brief career in federal office, having crushed former ambassador Alan Keyes in his lone general election race in 2004. "Senator Obama has not faced a credible Republican challenge of any kind," asserted Penn. Clinton, on the other hand, has run -- albeit briefly -- against former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then Rep. Rick Lazio in her 2000 Senate campaign, opponents that tested her, according to Wolfson, and proved her mettle as a candidate.

5. Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) emergence means national security will be the key issue of 2008. With McCain going on the attack against Obama as an inexperienced and naive politician when it comes to national security, Penn argued that Democrats need to think long and hard about whether Obama can match resumes and credentials with McCain on national security matters. "The Republican nominee has extensive credibility in this area and the Democrat needs to be able to be commander-in-chief," said Penn, adding that Clinton's service on the Armed Services Committee as well as the fact she has visited more than 80 foreign countries makes her the far stronger choice. He derided Obama as a "candidate with relatively no experience on national security and limited time in the United States Senate." This argument is an extension of the "risk" argument that drew so much criticism earlier in the race. That is, the Clinton campaign is asking voters to take a hard look at whether they feel comfortable with someone who has spent just a few years in the Senate as president. The answer to date has been a resounding yes, but things in politics can change at the drop of a hat.

6. Big States Matter More. This is an argument the Clinton campaign has been making quietly for weeks -- that it would be unimaginable for a party to nominate a candidate who hadn't won any of the biggest (most populous) states in the country. That argument only holds up if Clinton can deliver wins in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania -- adding to previous victories in California, New York, New Jersey and Florida, which, of course, was not seriously contested. Does it resonate with voters? Obama has won hundreds of thousands more raw votes than Clinton at this point and had a delegate lead. And, given how many states have already voted, it's hard to argue that the will of the people has somehow been subverted in the process to date.

Do you buy it? Can the blueprint work? Why or why not?