Dan Balz's Take
Fateful Minutes in Philadephia Dimmed Clinton's Prospects
DES MOINES -- If Hillary Clinton ends up losing the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, she will look back at a fateful moment in Philadelphia in late October as the reason why.
Clinton has gone through six weeks of misery -- some of it self-inflicted, some not. Thursday brought one of her worst days. She was forced to apologize personally to Barack Obama and then accepted the resignation of her New Hampshire co-chair Bill Shaheen after he told the Post's Alec MacGillis Wednesday that Obama would be ripped apart by the Republicans over his drug use as a student.
Clinton's team recognizes she has little time to right herself or risk double losses in Iowa and New Hampshire that could mark the beginning of the end of her candidacy. As they scramble to put the campaign on an upward trajectory and seek to reassure nervous supporters and fundraisers, they have one eye cocked back to Philadelphia.
The final minutes of that debate, which are now seared into the collective consciousness of Clinton's advisers. Clinton's stumble that night has kept the candidate and her campaign off balance ever since. She has had to deal with a husband who has strayed off message, a mini-controversy over whether her campaign staff planted questions at Iowa forums, and an Obama campaign that suddenly found its voice after months of uneven campaigning.
The cruel irony for Clinton is that Obama had an equally bad moment in Las Vegas two weeks after her mistake, and on the same issue: illegal immigration. Obama was no more adept at saying with clarity whether he favored giving drivers licenses to illegal aliens at the Las Vegas debate than Clinton had been in Philadelphia -- and he had had two weeks to think about it.
But what happened in Las Vegas stayed in Las Vegas. What happened in Philadelphia did not. The question the Clinton campaign keeps asking is why? What was it about that exchange over immigration that it now threatens months and months of effective campaigning and a series of debate performances in which Clinton was judged superior to Obama and the other Democrats in the field?
Small moments sometimes have great resonance and this may be a classic example -- one of the most fateful exchanges in a debate since Gerald Ford wrongly liberated Eastern Europe in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter. Clinton's answer in Philadelphia -- seemingly attempting to duck and straddle at the same time -- became a metaphor for the doubts that long have existed about her candidacy.
For all the effectiveness Clinton and her advisers demonstrated through the summer and early fall, questions about her never fully disappeared. Her Iowa team long has known that, even when the polls seemed to be improving here, and while Iowa has always been her worst state, the signs of slippage in New Hampshire underscore that the doubts extend beyond the cornfields here.
They can be summed up with the words "trust" and "warmth." Democratic voters see Clinton as intelligent, strong, experienced -- all the attributes that her advisers say make her ready to be president on day one.
What they don't see is a candidate they always like or trust. Her advisers struggle to understand -- as Al Gore's advisers did eight years ago -- why the Hillary Clinton they see behind the scenes, a woman with a sense of humor and a nurturing instinct for many of the younger women who work for her, is not seen by the voters. The repair work is now underway and the question is whether it has come too late. Clinton's new ads feature her mother, Dorothy Rodham, and her daughter, Chelsea.
Her campaign message continues to aim at the concerns of middle-class voters, who are as much a target of Hillary Clinton as they were for Bill Clinton in 1992. Her focus on health care and kitchen-table economics speaks, her advisers hope, to the insecurities of many down-scale voters -- and to the middle-aged women she needs to turn out for her at the caucuses on Jan. 3.
Advisers to John Edwards believe Clinton's troubles began long before the Philadelphia debate. They mark the transition point in the Democratic race to the Yearly Kos conference debate in Chicago in August, when Clinton defended lobbyists and declined to join Edwards and Obama in ruling out Washington lobbyists' contributions.
The Edwards team continues to see both Clinton and Obama as vulnerable and believes the former North Carolina senator's focus on corporate greed and his record as a candidate who closes strongly can push him to victory here in Iowa. What they must overcome are doubts that he can win the nomination among voters in the early states.
What Clinton's team hopes to do is put the focus back on experienced and electability -- areas where they believe Obama is more vulnerable and she is strong. But she dares not risk a negative assault on Obama's credentials at this point, given the concerns people already have about her.
But she has struggled to be heard. The Obama-Oprah extravaganza, for however much it may produce votes for the Illinois senator, dominated the news in Iowa for days, obscuring all the other candidates. Clinton's problems are receiving more attention now than the case she is making for herself.
Thursday's debate provided only the briefest of opportunities for her to draw any contrasts with Obama or with Edwards, although it's clear that the Clinton campaign is now totally focused on preventing Obama from gaining substantial momentum in the week before Christmas and what is expected to be a brief lull in campaign activity.
Despite her problems, Clinton should not be underestimated. Her advisers see a fight to the finish in Iowa and believe they have put together an innovative ground operation that will turn out all of their supporters, including the many first-time caucus-goers who say they intend to vote for her.
Whether or not they overcome questions about her -- or effectively seed concerns about Obama's experience -- they will long wonder why a few minutes in Philadelphia caused so many problems for them and the once high-flying candidate.
-- Dan Balz
Posted at 11:35 AM ET on Dec 14, 2007
Dan Balz's Take
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