Clinton Resilience Could Benefit Hillary

History shows the folly of counting out a Clinton.

If Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign is looking more and more like the Titanic, she may yet prove to be the unsinkable Molly Brown.

Ask Mike McCurry about the Clintons' resilience. McCurry worked for Bob Kerrey, one of Bill Clinton's chief rivals in the 1992 presidential campaign. He remembers the day details broke about Clinton's efforts to avoid the Vietnam draft, just weeks after allegations had surfaced of an affair with Gennifer Flowers.

"He's toast," McCurry told co-workers on the Kerrey campaign. "He's never going to survive this." McCurry went on to become Clinton's chief White House spokesman.

Hillary Clinton was a huge factor in her husband's 1992 victory and in any number of other recoveries during his agony-and-ecstasy political career. Now, she's the one attempting to rebound from 11 straight primary and caucus losses to Barack Obama.

Obama is well aware of the Clintons' supersized survival instincts. Aides say privately that's one reason the Illinois senator has continued to go after her so directly rather than adopting a traditional front-runner's strategy of ignoring his rival.

"I'd hold the obituary" for Clinton, says David Gergen, who served as an adviser to four presidents, including Bill Clinton. "She, like he, has enormous inner reserves upon which to draw. That's why, no matter what else happens, you can't discount the possibility that she's going to bounce back."

She's already done it once this year, pulling off an upset in New Hampshire after taking a shellacking in the leadoff Iowa caucuses.

"We're going to keep pushing as hard as we can," she promised after placing third in Iowa. She's been saying much the same thing as she fights for victories in Texas and Ohio next week to revive her candidacy.

Trite as that may sound, it's part of the secret to the Clintons' success.

"They never say die," said Mary Matalin, who served as deputy campaign manager of the unsuccessful Bush re-election campaign in 1992. "In all the years I've been watching them, it never occurs to them to throw in the towel. There's no 'What's my graceful exit strategy?' They don't have that gene."

Democratic strategist Jennifer Palmieri, an eight-year veteran of the Clinton White House, sees the same mettle.

"They take a very long view of things, and they expect to win," said Palmieri. "It's something that not enough people perhaps on the Democratic side do - expect to win."

The notion of a former first lady running for a Senate seat from a state in which she had no political connections was written off at first, but now Clinton is in her second term holding the New York Senate seat once occupied by Robert F. Kennedy.

The Clintons' boom-and-bust cycle began long before they arrived on the national scene.

It started with a bust: In 1974, Bill Clinton made an unsuccessful run for Congress at age 28. Two years later, he bounced back and was elected Arkansas attorney general. And two years after that, at 32, he became the nation's youngest governor.

Then, defeat again: In 1980, done in by what he admitted was the arrogance of youth, Clinton lost his bid for re-election to a second term as governor. Two years later, redemption. He pulled off a comeback and never lost another race.

Along the way, the Clintons proved themselves to be tough street fighters.

In 1990, when Gov. Clinton faced a strong re-election challenge, it was first lady Hillary who crashed a news conference held by the opponent and undercut him with documents showing he had praised Clinton's performance as governor.

"That is a group that can take a punch and they can lay a punch," said Palmieri. "They are smart and they're fearless, but they're not reckless."

The Clinton roller coaster ride was far from over.

The 1992 presidential campaign amounted to a running revival show for the Clintons, and the presidency unfolded like a sequel.

It was almost always a team effort, and Hillary Clinton had a starring role in one early and prominent defeat, the ill-fated health-care reform effort.

In 1994, after Paula Jones filed a sexual harassment suit against Bill, it was Hillary who first interviewed lawyer Robert Bennett about helping fend off what Clinton insiders were calling the latest "bimbo eruption." There were other problems, as well. The Whitewater mess had followed the Clintons north from Arkansas, and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating.

The midterm elections that year, in which Republicans seized control of the House and Senate, served as resounding repudiation to the president.

By mid-1995, the Clinton presidency was in free fall. Internal polls found that two-thirds of Americans ruled out voting to re-elect him. Aides cringed when Clinton felt compelled to insist at a news conference, "The president is relevant."

Through it all, Hillary Clinton was "a steadying force," Gergen said. "One of the reasons this marriage has worked for both of them is that he could always look to her for help in getting through things."

Bill Clinton was chastened but forged ahead, adapting to the changed political dynamic. In his 1996 State of the Union address, the president who had come to office promising to do so much instead declared, "The era of big government is over."

Voters in 1996 rewarded him with re-election, and he set out to exceed the low expectations set for second-term presidents.

Those efforts were overshadowed by his involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The ensuing investigation and impeachment melodrama tested the Clintons' resilience and their marriage as never before, but they persevered and Hillary Clinton emerged stronger than ever.

She gave a hint of that last week when she told the audience at a Democratic debate, "I think everybody here knows I've lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life." And that may explain her ability to press forward when the odds appear so daunting.

When it comes to the Clintons, says Palmieri, "The one thing you can almost always say about whatever situation you're in is that you've seen worse. So they don't get rattled. They have a much better perspective about how to deal with difficult days."