Will Clinton's "Prose" Propel Her To The White House?

From CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Jim Axelrod, who's covering the Clinton campaign:

COMMERCE, CALIF. -- Lately Hillary Clinton has taken to quoting former New York Governor Mario Cuomo on the stump. "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose," Clinton tells her crowds. It's another subtle way to target Barack Obama. The Clinton camp feels that the path to the Democratic nomination runs through her ability to paint Obama as a "talker not a doer."

Watch carefully over the next 3 and 1/2 weeks. In her speeches, events, and ads, Clinton will continue to press voters to examine Obama's record, not his rhetoric.

However, if she was accurately describing herself, Hillary Clinton would have to say she is campaigning in prose as well.

You can't fault Clinton for playing to her strength. She is a policy wonk who comes across as steeped in both domestic and foreign policy issues. She is not a riveting public speaker. She doesn't raise the roof. In her first public appearance since her stunning come from behind win in New Hampshire, she walked into a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas and spoke to an overflow crowd about sub-prime lending. An important issue to be sure -- especially in Nevada -- but it certainly is prose -- not poetry.

Who's to argue with her strategy or technique right now? Her campaign style was effective enough to make pollsters and reporters look like morons in New Hampshire**. The personal nature of campaigning in New Hampshire -- Q and A sessions in coffee shops, high school auditoriums, even door-to-door canvassing -- allowed her to flesh out a sometimes dry speaking style with interpersonal touches of warmth.

But that's changing. Twenty four states hold nominating contests on Super Tuesday, February 5th. She'll be reaching out much more extensively through television ads and rallies. Poetry arguably becomes more important. If we've learned anything from the campaign so far, it's that the Democratic base wants to be inspired -- words do matter. Obama's status -- neck and neck with Clinton at worse -- is largely based on the power of articulating an idea. If Hillary Clinton is going to use Mario Cuomo's one-liner on the stump -- she better be careful to mind both halves of the quote.

** A quick word on the disparity between polls and results. Reporters have been getting criticized for pronouncing Hillary Clinton's campaign dead and buried before the votes were cast. A reminder: the Clinton campaign itself was bracing for defeat. Their most senior strategists had given up on New Hampshire going into the vote. They had started to move resources, plan for new campaign leadership, and reformulate strategy based on a presumed loss in New Hampshire. Not because of media reports -- because of their own convictions about what was going to happen. Honest reporting reflecting the sense of the Clinton campaign itself would have required writing a story line that the Clintons expected to be soundly beaten last Tuesday. If we had it wrong -- we weren't alone.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.