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Another Bleak Wednesday for Clinton

Clinton in New York this morning, working to land on a message that resonates. (AP).

By Dan Balz
It is another bleak Wednesday for Hillary Clinton's campaign, the second in as many weeks in which she has awakened to the aftermath of what President Bush would call a thumpin'.

Was she expected to lose Wisconsin? Probably. Was she expected to lose it by 17 percentage points? Never. On top of that came another drubbing in a caucus state, this time in Hawaii, where Barack Obama had lived as a child. The margin there was 51 points.

Whatever the Clinton campaign thought would work has not worked. The carefully crafted phrases -- Obama is about promises, Clinton is about solutions -- fell flat in the Badger State. The negative ads about whether Obama was ducking debates did not work either.

Clinton needs something more dramatic in terms of a midcourse correction as the two-week battle for Texas and Ohio begins. What might it be? There appears to be conflict inside the Clinton campaign about the nature of the problem she has. Various theories abound.

Is it that white women are no longer supporting her in the numbers they did earlier in the campaign? Or is it that white men have moved decisively to Obama since John Edwards quit the race? Is Obama truly beginning to break even or even win the votes of non-college-educated white voters? Does she need to be more empathetic, to show she is vulnerable, in order to recapture the voice she found in New Hampshire? Or more presidential to highlight her experience vs. Obama's inexperience?

"Strength and experience," the mantra from earlier in the campaign, has not worked. It ultimately cost her Iowa, where voters never found her warm enough. In New Hampshire she evolved into the caring and compassionate female candidate and claimed in the aftermath of her best night of the campaign that she had found her voice as the caring Clinton. Now there are doubts about whether that alone was the right tone. Some combination of strength and compassion is the new goal.

Campaign officials see Thursday's debate in Texas as a major opportunity to change the story line of the Democratic race, whether by her ability to offer a compelling contrast in style and leadership, telling arguments on substantive issues or a poor performance by Obama. A second debate next Tuesday in Ohio gives her a second chance to drive a new message. But that does not amount to a strategy, and Obama has been no pushover in recent debates. So perhaps more is needed.

I encouraged a number of Democrats, some with sympathies toward Clinton, others more partial to Obama, others fairly neutral in the nomination battle, to offer their suggestions overnight Tuesday, on the condition that they not be identified directly. Their ideas are not always consistent, but one pattern emerges: This is no time to assume that a little better application of the strategy she has been following will turn the tide.

"She lost the battle of the job description -- she let the Obama campaign define what's needed in a president in terms that totally work for him and totally marginalize her," one strategist wrote. "In fact, this was the major turning point in the campaign. Obama took off when he stopped just talking vaguely about the need for change and started making the case that his unique attributes are exactly what we need in a president today to turn the country around. She never engaged in a thoughtful discussion about the presidency, and why she fits the bill better than Obama."

"Substantively, Clinton has got to draw even sharper contrasts to stop Obama's momentum," said a strategist who worked in a key battleground state in the 2004 election. "How negative that gets is really a gut check as much as it is a strategic guessing game on where to draw the line. How far is she willing to go, risking reputation, integrity, and leadership capital? She must get women and working folks back on board with her populism and she must succeed at establishing stronger doubts about Obama's experience. I just don't know what else she can say."

Another strategist picked up on the risks of becoming too negative over the next two weeks -- even though traditional political strategy would suggest she has no other choice. "Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton have too much more that they want to do in their careers and for their legacy to burn down the Party and the campaign," this strategist wrote. "They don't need to be kamikazes. If Clinton doesn't make it through this race -- if she doesn't drive her negatives through the roof -- she could easily be the next Senate majority leader or potentially the nominee in 2012."

This same strategist said they need to toss out the poll-tested slogans and "show Hillary talking from her heart... No more crying but raw emotion and passion about the people she meets and the stakes that are so high. And she needs to play the woman card more -- when she makes women feel guilty that they are denying a woman a real chance -- that card works. It is okay for voters to feel sorry for you if they vote for you."

A veteran of the Clinton-Gore administration offered these thoughts: "First, for the political community, she needs to open up her campaign. I love Maggie [Williams], Doug [Sosnik] and Steve [Richetti], but all the changes have said, 'We're in trouble and we're drawing the circle TIGHTER.' HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] needs someone high and visible who is not on the Clinton Library Steering Committee."

This strategist continued: "Second, in terms of presentation, they should never let her stand behind a podium and give a speech ever again. It's just not her thing, and she's getting KILLED in the comparison to Obama. Put her back around a table, listening and chatting. She's likable, smart, and engaging in a small setting."

Like others, he urged renewed focus on women. "Women voters prefer her, but don't really think they have much at stake here. She needs to show that she understands them in a way that no man possibly could."

Other Democrats remain mystified by the failure of the Clinton campaign to be ready for the post-Super Tuesday, pre-March 4 round of contests. And they are stunned that the Clinton campaign only now is beginning to realize the importance of ground operations in these states. Clinton officials say there is a shift underway to focus more on field operations, but is it too late?

Several strategists were truly pessimistic, including one Clinton loyalist and one Republican. The Republican called the race essentially over and said Ohio voters could ratify the undoing of Clinton's campaign on March 4.

"Key for her is the blue collar union voters," the Republican wrote. "BUT, the problem for her with those voters is her connection to NAFTA. AND, the lack of a competitive GOP primary will attract LOTS of I's [independents] and R's [Republicans] into the DEM primary, essentially overloading the D[emocratic] primary." Clinton cannot win if that happens, he predicted.

The first strategist quoted said the time for slogans is long past and what Clinton needs is a sustained argument about the election and the choices. He proposed that Clinton deliver three big speeches in coming days, one about the presidency in 2009 and the risks of an untested leader, a second on the substantive differences between the candidates in which she clearly embraces the moderate and pragmatic label and portrays Obama as "instinctively liberal." The third, he said, should systematically dissect Obama's campaign promises and raise hard questions about whether he or anyone can, for example, magically reduce health-insurance premiums by $2,500 a family.

"None of this is likely to work miracles (and Act IV Scene iii is a little late in the play to commence the action)," the strategist wrote. "But what she has done up until now hasn't been working, and this at least might get her the spotlight back and lay out a rationale that people can chew on."

By Washington Post editors  |  February 20, 2008; 12:09 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , B_Blog , Dan Balz's Take , Hillary Rodham Clinton , Primaries , The Democrats  
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