The Barack Obama campaign thinks so. It thinks Hillary Clinton’s campaign is willing to take any road to the White House, including the low road.
“They would do anything to win, and that means anything,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, told me Monday. “There is a frenetic energy around them to commandeer this election in any way they can.”
Axelrod went on: “She is the ultimate Washington inside player. She is always asking, ‘How do we wire the vote? How do we wire the system to get the results we want?’”
From his point of view, the Clinton campaign keeps trying to change the rules.
“When they started off, it was all about delegates,” Axelrod said. “Now that we have more delegates, it’s all about the popular vote. And if that does not work out, they will probably challenge us to a game of cribbage to choose the nominee.”
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Another Obama senior aide told me he believed Clinton was willing to “destroy the party” just as long as she ends up with the nomination.
I asked Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson for a response.
“I think these apocalyptic quotes are unhelpful,” Wolfson said. “I don’t envision that either side would destroy the party. There is a democratic process here to play out. This process is not over. There are still 10 [contests] left to vote. What is the fear here? Let’s let democracy run its course.”
From the perspective of the Clinton campaign, it has little choice but to go all-out. As a top Clinton aide admitted to me: “Under our projections, if you sat both the Michigan and Florida delegations as they now exist and based on our projections for the remaining contests, Sen. Clinton would still trail narrowly on pledged delegates going into the convention.”
Which means that Clinton almost certainly cannot get to the Denver convention with a lead in pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses. She also cannot win a majority of states, even if she wins every remaining contest.
It is still possible for her to pull ahead of Obama in the popular vote if she does very well in the remaining contests.
But who says the popular vote counts in choosing a nominee? Those are not the party rules, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed out on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
“It’s a delegate race,” Pelosi said. “The way the system works is that the delegates choose the nominee.”
The Obama campaign knows the Clinton campaign has no intention of accepting that.
And the Clinton campaign has already sold — with mild success — the notion that the leader in the popular vote has some claim to the nomination.
If Clinton manages to get a popular vote lead, she will use that to persuade party insiders — the 794 so-called superdelegates — to give her the nomination. A front-page story in The New York Times on Sunday quoted two undecided superdelegates as saying the popular vote will be something they consider in deciding for whom to vote.
And Wolfson made clear to me that what the Obama campaign considers “commandeering,” the Clinton campaign sees as a legitimate path to victory.
“I think the automatic [i.e., super] delegates are going to make their assessment on a number of different criteria,” Wolfson said. “The overall delegate count, the popular vote, momentum, states won by each candidate [not just the number, but the size], the coalitions of each candidate, who matches up best with John McCain, and who would be the best president.”
The Obama campaign says it is willing to compete on evey front, but it views the Clinton strategy as one of desperation.
“They are throwing long,” Axelrod told me. “They are running up whatever roadblocks they can. She has her sight set on this nomination as a personal goal, and she has been tenacious — as we would expect — in pursuit of that goal.”
But, Axelrod believes, there can be a downside to such tenacity.
“This is an election in which, fundamentally, people want change and being the consummate Washington inside player doesn’t convince people that this is change we need,” he said. “I don’t think our voters’ attitude is that we should win at all costs and through all means. I don’t think that is what our folks believe.”
Which is a very high-road way of looking at things. But does the high road always lead to the White House?