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Extended Take: Clinton's Challenges Ahead

A supporter holds a pen and campaign flier, hopefully to be signed by Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton as she makes a campaign stop at the McAllen Convention Center in McAllen, Tex. (AP.)

By Dan Balz
Hillary Clinton urgently began the regrouping process Wednesday after big losses to Barack Obama in Tuesday's Potomac primaries, sharpening her rhetoric, throwing new television ads on the air in Wisconsin, Texas and Ohio and determined to overcome her rival's organizational edge.

But the pummeling she took in Maryland, Virginia and the District raised new questions about her campaign's message and strategy, which Democratic strategists said she must fix if she hopes to slow Obama's growing momentum in time to defeat him in what are now must-win contests in Ohio and Texas on March 4.

"She is doing shockingly little right now to refresh and recharge her message, to make herself or her campaign interesting, or to offer a credible alternative [to] Obama's narrative of what the race is about," one Democrat wrote in an e-mail message as the results were coming in from Virginia and Maryland. "She has to find a way to do those things on the way to Texas and Ohio."

If anything conveyed the sense of urgency inside Clinton's headquarters, it was the news from Maggie Williams, Clinton's new campaign manager, during a conference call she and the candidate held with supporters and fundraisers, that a number of staffers had spent the night at the Virginia headquarters.

The recent shakeup in her campaign offers Clinton an opportunity to relaunch after what has been a series of defeats, in which Obama has won contests in six consecutive states and the District, with impressive margins and signs that he has begun to expand his coalition. If those patterns take hold in coming contests, Clinton's hopes of winning the nomination will be seriously diminished.

Clinton's first steps toward reversing Obama's momentum came early Wednesday with a release from campaign headquarters of a new ad criticizing her rival for refusing to debate in Wisconsin before next Tuesday's primary.

Clinton also signaled a tougher approach toward her rival early Wednesday during a rally in McAllen, Tex. "I am in the solutions business, my opponent is in the promises business," she said. "I think we need answers, not questions."

Obama and Clinton have agreed to debates in Texas on Feb. 21 and Ohio on Feb. 26. But the New York senator's advisers are eager to draw Obama into as many joint encounters as possible.

They believe that the California debate arrested Obama's growing strength there and helped Clinton win a crucial victory. They now see additional debates as their best opportunity to shift the focus from talk of Obama's gathering momentum to comparisons on matters of substance and readiness.

Clinton's first key decision will be whether she will go all out in Wisconsin between now and Tuesday. The campaign had sent mixed signals, indicating that they regard the real showdowns as Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania's April 22 contest. But she now plans to campaign actively in Wisconsin after stops Wednesday and Thursday in Texas and Ohio. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea, also are spending considerable time in the state.

Clinton advisers see Wisconsin as unpredictable, with a mix of blue-collar Democrats who should be favorable toward her, and a tradition of independence and liberalism that tilt the state toward Obama.

Clinton can ill afford another loss the size of those she suffered on Tuesday. Lopsided victories by Obama not only add to his lead in the delegate hunt, but also create an unmistakable sense of momentum that could overwhelm Clinton on March 4.

"I don't believe she can wait to March 4," Democratic strategist Bill Carrick noted. "She has to make a stand [in Wisconsin]. There is a national trend taking hold in state after state. The early polls show a big lead and then start to evaporate when the campaign gets engaged. Texas and Ohio are not demographic enclaves immune from the national political trend."

Given the favorable coverage Obama is now receiving, exceeding expectations in Wisconsin might prove a moral victory for the embattled Clinton campaign. As one strategist put it: "She needs to get to Wisconsin. She'll probably lose but she needs to lose right."

Top Clinton strategists dismissed the idea that Obama's momentum is strong enough to carry him through the next three weeks, noting that perceptions have swung wildly from week to week depending on the outcome of state-by-state contests.

But others in the party, including some who have been backing Clinton, say that Obama's winning streak has raised the stakes considerably. "She absolutely must win both Ohio and Texas to stay alive," one strategist noted. "Most of all, she has to find a way to change the fundamental dynamic of the race."

"She has got to get her voice back," wrote another strategist, who urged the Clinton campaign to recapture what worked in New Hampshire a month ago. "No one can stand hearing or seeing her because she does not sound or look authentic. She's got to show her authentic self.... Her problem is enormous, though she can overcome it. She needs to win and she needs a new voice, and she needs to manage her spouse."

The Clinton coalition, so stable through most of the first month of the primaries and caucuses, showed signs of cracking in Maryland and especially in Virginia. Obama carried or cut into her margins among men, older voters and those with less education and lower incomes. In Virginia he came within six percentage points of carrying white women, although in Maryland Clinton maintained her superiority with those voters.

Tuesday's primaries exposed a major problem for Clinton among white men that her loyalists say she must address. She and Obama roughly split white men in Maryland, but she lost them by 18 points in Virginia. Clinton had hoped that the departure of John Edwards from the race would shift white men decisively in her direction, but so far that hasn't happened.

Democrats outside the Clinton campaign said she must build her recovery -- particularly in Wisconsin and Ohio -- on white voters who do not have a college degree. "Non-college whites are the key," one Democratic strategist noted Wednesday.

These voters stayed largely loyal on Tuesday when others were defecting. They went 61 percent to 32 percent for Clinton in Maryland and 57 percent to 42 for Clinton in Virginia.

The Clinton campaign also sees the large Hispanic population in Texas as the other lifeline to prevent Obama from gaining an irreversible lead, which is why she spent Tuesday night and all of Wednesday in El Paso, south Texas and San Antonio.

But several strategists said this week that Texas may not be as favorable as Clinton once believed. Obama's momentum is one reason, but more fundamentally, the rules that govern the state's unique process for selecting delegates may give an unexpected advantage to Obama in the delegate race.

Texas apportions delegates on the basis of a primary and caucuses, both on the same day. That gives an advantage to the well-organized Obama operation. In addition, Obama could gain an added boost because of the distribution of delegates.

Several predominantly African American districts will award up to eight delegates. A huge Obama margin would give him a 6-2 or 7-1 split in those districts. At the same time, the number of delegates in some of the Hispanic districts is far smaller.

"Considering Texas, I think she should concentrate all she has on beating expectations in Wisconsin," a veteran strategist noted.

Changes at the top of Clinton's campaign are likely to generate fresh thinking about how to wage the rest of the primaries and caucuses. New campaign manager Maggie Williams has begun to reach out beyond the tight inner circle for advice from other Democrats, among them veteran media consultant David Doak, who has long experience in Texas.

Campaign officials also are putting new emphasis on building up their field organizations. "You will see over the next couple of weeks not only a much more aggressive media operation -- we're up now in Wisconsin and we're going up in Texas and Ohio -- but also a much more aggressive ground operation that not only focused on these couple of states but starts laying significant groundwork in states that lie ahead. That will be noticeable in the next 48 hours."

The Clinton state directors from California and New Hampshire -- two states where victories played a crucial role in restoring Clinton's political health -- have been dispatched to Texas to get the organization moving faster there. Clinton plans to open more than a dozen offices around the state to prepare for the caucuses, which will be held at 8,000 sites.

The state director from Nevada has been sent to Ohio to organize there, and Clinton officials plan a major organizational investment in Pennsylvania. Clinton has the support of Gov. Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania, but strategists with expertise in that state question whether she can hold the state together, given Obama's winning streak.

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday that Clinton will have trouble overcoming the Illinois senator's lead among pledged delegates even if she narrowly wins Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But the Clinton team remains focused on corralling superdelegates. "While Obama currently does well in national poll head-to-head trial heads [with presumptive GOP nominee John McCain], many of these [superdelegates] will be wondering about whether or not he can weather a Republican attack storm," a Clinton ally in one key state wrote Wednesday. "The campaign will whip, whip, whip for support."

Clinton was described as energetic during the 40-minute conference call with supporters, according to one person who listened in. She said the campaign had raised about $1 million a day on the internet since Feb. 1 and that Ohio and Texas had enough delegates at stake to vault her back into the lead if she does well.

She repeated the line about promises and solutions that she used in Texas and told her supporters that her campaign "cannot cede the future." Unless she deals with the present and the challenges she now faces, the future may be a luxury to contemplate.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 13, 2008; 3:56 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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