Clinton Team Retools Strategy In N.H.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., gestures during an impromptu press availability at the Gala Cafe in Manchester, N.H., Friday, Jan. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
AP
This story was written by Ben Smith, Jim VandeHei, and Mike Allen.

Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to target what her campaign calls Barack Obama's inexperience over the next five days in New Hampshire and deliver much sharper - and likely much more personal and negative - attacks against the Iowa winner, according to Democrats familiar with the evolving strategy.

Clinton is recalibrating her campaign message, the latest in what has been a month-long process of shifting slogans and strategies aimed at slowing an ascendant Obama. This won't be easy. The so-called contrast strategy carries clear risk - it could make her look desperate or turn off voters tired of conventional political tactics.

"We really have a full month to Feb. 5," Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, said of the so-called Super Tuesday primaries. "We're going to see a race where [voters] will really start to focus in on the choices they have."

"President Clinton lost five states before he won a single state in his quest for the nomination," Penn said. "We're very competitive in New Hampshire - let's get there, let's have a debate, let's see the choices."

Clinton has tons of cash and experience, but it's not entirely clear how much that will matter. Iowa was a big setback for the senator from New York in ways that are only becoming obvious as strategists sift through the detailed polling results and final numbers.

Her experience argument clearly failed to excite Democratic voters. She lost badly among young voters and newcomers, and even lost women. Remember all those Penn memos explaining how Clinton would bring so many new female voters into the process and prosper? There were certainly more women - just not women for Hillary Clinton.

A much bigger concern for Clinton is the overall Obama performance. The Illinois senator proved he could craft an attractive and consistent campaign message with broad appeal, build a political organization that delivers results on the ground and capture the imagination of voters who feed off each other - college-age kids and disillusioned independents.

Penn disputed the early impression that Obama rode to victory on a wave of new independent and Republican caucus-goers, arguing instead that Obama benefited from a surge in younger voters.

"It's not true that this was a movement of independents," he said, pointing - accurately - to exit polling showing that the share of independent voters had held steady at 20 percent, the same as 2004. That is true, but it was 20 percent of a much bigger pool because turnout was through the roof for Democrats.

Meanwhile, Clinton and Obama think John Edwards is a dead man walking. That is the consensus view of Democratic strategists interviewed. So it is a two-person race in their minds.

Obama expects Clinton to attack and attack viciously. His advisers are bracing for a flurry of ads questioning his ability to lead in a time of great unease, both at home and overseas. The Clintons want this badly and playing nice won't get them there. It is safe to assume the race will get nastier.

Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic national committeeman and major Clinton supporter from Long Island, echoed what many in the Clinton camp were saying overnight. "Being the underdog will be very liberating," he said. That is a far cry from the Clinton strategy of proclaiming her the inevitable victor.

Penn, campaign Chairman Terry McAuliffe, and press secretary Jay Carson described in a rolling series of interviews aboard Clinton's chartered jet a campaign that Carson said would draw "sharper" contrasts than in the restrained Iowa contest. None of the Clinton aides would describe the form those contrasts would take, but they wouldn't rule out negative television advertising or more direct criticism of Obama from Clinon, who to this point has barely mentioned his name.

As a central theme, they said they'd continue to stress the gravity of the job, suggesting that Obama lacks the experience necessary to perform it.

"This is an election that is really going to be about the choice that people have between experienced leadership for change, versus leadership less experienced that talks about change," said Penn.

The Clinton aides also sought to downplay the import of Obama's Iowa victory. Carson compared the universe of Iowa voters to the population of his native Macon, Ga.

Clinton and her husband plan a series of events in New Hampshire Saturday, and none of her aides suggested they'd write off the state.

"We're going to win New Hampshire," said McAuliffe.