Without a clearly marked path to victory, Clinton’s campaign is barreling forward into the climactic March 4 primaries and beyond, hoping not just for convincing victories in Ohio and Texas tomorrow, but for some other, yet unknown, turn of events.
Some Clinton aides and top supporters Monday cited hopes that Obama’s run of bad press – his first in months – would continue. Others pointed to the pure speculation that he would get called to testify for the defense in a messy Chicago corruption trial. There are those who think that Clinton could turn the race around in a yet-unscheduled Florida re-vote and those hoping Clinton could simply hang on long enough for something, anything, to happen.
"They keep moving the goal posts, but at some point you run out of field," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sniped on a conference call with reporters yesterday.
The reality is that Obama now holds not only the lead among delegates to the Democratic National Convention, but control of a campaign narrative that appears to be steering the party leaders – superdelegates – who will ultimately determine the nominee inexorably into his camp.
On a conference call with reporters, Clinton aides described the argument they’d make to those superdelegates if she wins Ohio and Texas Tuesday.
"If he can't compete with us on who can be commander-in-chief, who can be a steward of this economy, he can’t compete with John McCain on these issues," said communications director Howard Wolfson.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the Clinton campaign was scrambling Monday to put a field operation in place for Texas’s two-step electoral process, in which the primary election is followed by caucuses at each of about 8,000 precincts around the state. One aide said that while the campaign had rounded up thousands of volunteers to represent the campaign at those locations, they were still well over a thousand short.
The organizing scramble was matched by an internal struggle to tamp down flashes of public sparring between senior aides, with many damaging leaks focused on chief strategist Mark Penn. Penn did himself few favors internally Monday with an email to the Los Angeles Times in which he noted that he was responsible only for the campaign’s message, not its organizing or its spending.
“Hillary Clinton has a very powerful populist message about issues that impact people's lives, and it's being undermined by all these group therapy discussions the campaign staff is having with the media,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member from New York and prominent Clinton supporter. “The most important innovation this campaign could pursue is confiscating all the blackberries so they do their jobs.”
Still, the Clinton campaign’s mood appeared to lift Monday as Obama faced what was probably the most hostile news conference of his political career, striding abruptly off stage after a series of questions about his relationship with the indicted Chicago power broker Tony Rezko and about a leaked Canadian government memo reporting that a top Obama advisor had told a Canadian official that Obama’s opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement was mere political posturing.
Meanwhile, longtime Clinton advisor Harold Ickes – a veteran of a long, bitter, and ultimately futile delegate battle on behalf of Senator Edward Kennedy in 1980 – seemed to be solidifying his position within the campaign’s ever-tense internal politics.
“Harold is the one folks inside are rallying around,” said a Clinton advisor.
A Penn defender, however, noted that the pollster remains fully engaged, and was the force behind Clinton&rsqu;s most attention-getting move of the weekend, airing an ad that imagines a phone ringing at a moment of crisis in the White House, and suggests that only Clinton is ready to lead America through a crisis.
If Clinton doesn’t score broad, delegate-heavy victories tomorrow, only she and former President Clinton know her next move. But aides and top supporters seemed convinced that she would fight on.
“It’s not like he’s getting closer to 2025 than we are,” said a consultant to the campaign, citing the total number of delegates needed to clinch victory. “If you’re within 100 delegates of being the nominee of the Democratic Party you don’t give that up just because some people say it would be better for the party.’
Two top donors to the campaign took hope from a report over the weekend that the Republican governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, has spoken favorably of re-running the Democratic primary there. State financing for the vote could remove a major obstacle – the cost – and DNC Chairman Howard Dean appeared open to the idea, though both Clinton aides and top Florida Democrats have opposed it.
A majority in Florida already voted for Clinton, but their votes will not count because of a dispute over party rules that kept all of the candidates from campaigning there. A re-vote, however, could give Clinton another shot at making up part of her delegate deficit in a state where she was popular in January.
Even among those urging Clinton to go on, however, there were limits to their support.
“Whether you win Texas by two points or lose Texas by two points isn’t really the issue,” said a major fundraiser for the campaign. “The real question is, can she show movement among delegates?”
But others were less rational in their arguments.
“I’m feeling momentum for her,” said one senior advisor. “Is that crazy?”